I'll return if asked, says Smith

BILL MOORE
Last updated 12:00 19/01/2013

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It's the public humiliation that hurts the most, not the $116,000 salary cut, Nelson MP Nick Smith says of his interrupted Cabinet career.

At the end of 2011, Dr Smith was given the local government portfolio to add to environment and climate change issues. He got to work quickly, introducing a broad and far-reaching reform package on a Monday in March last year. Two days later he was out of Cabinet.

"Monday was a great day," he recalled this week. "They say a week's a long time in politics, but I'd say a day is a very long time."

His sudden fall was brought about by the Bronwyn Pullar affair. His transgression was that while holding the ACC portfolio he used ministerial letterhead to write a letter of support for Ms Pullar, a former close friend and party activist who was locked in a long-term struggle with ACC.

Once the letter was unearthed the public condemnation was swift, embarrassing Prime Minister John Key and the National Party.

Accused of breaching conflict of interest rules, an emotional Dr Smith stepped down, saying that "politics is a tough game and if you make mistakes, you pay the price".

Interviewed this week as speculation builds around the revised Cabinet lineup Mr Key will announce in a week or so, a chipper Dr Smith said that the decision to go was the right choice and it wasn't the big drop in earnings that really troubled him.

"It's more than the money. Politics is a very brutal business. To go to public meetings and get accused of being corrupt, hurts dearly. The public humiliation is more painful than the impact on salary."

However, the important principle at stake was that in New Zealand, whether you are a friend of the minister or not, the same standards apply, he said.

"While I maintain it was never my intention for Bronwyn Pullar to get any different treatment, I openly accept that it created a poor perception that had the risk of undermining the Government, and undermining my own standards and what I think is right."

It was better, he said, to take responsibility for the error than to try to minimise it or bluff his way out.

Ten months later he is ready to rejoin the Key Cabinet if asked, though repeatedly pointing out that Mr Key has 59 members to choose from for the vacancies that arise from the appointment of a new Speaker.

Although unwilling to make any claims on a role, he has a record to suggest that he is well qualified to resume one.

In Parliament since 1990 when elected as a 25-year-old, Dr Smith first entered Cabinet in 1996 as minister of conservation and associate minister of education and social welfare in Jim Bolger's team.

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In 1998, after Jenny Shipley took over National's leadership, he retained the conservation portfolio and became corrections minister and associate treaty negotiations minister.

In 1999 he again retained conservation, but took on education and dropped treaty negotiations.

On the back of National's 2008 win, Dr Smith was given three portfolios: environment, ACC and climate change issues. After the 2011 election he dropped ACC and became local government minister, retaining environment and and climate change issues. At that point his Cabinet ranking fell from sixth to 10th, a setback he shrugged off with the comment "the role is far more important than the rankings".

He was also - briefly - deputy leader of the National Party in 2003. A strong supporter of Bill English, who entered Parliament with him in 1990 and was deposed as leader by Don Brash in October 2003, he held the job for only a month, during which he returned to Nelson for a period of "stress leave", before being replaced by Gerry Brownlee.

That was almost a decade ago and in spite of last year's slip and occasional erratic moments before then, Dr Smith has been an effective minister. The point was reinforced in June last year when further developments in the Pullar saga prompted questions to Mr Key about Dr Smith's possible return to Cabinet.

"He's very capable, so we miss him. He's by far our most experienced person when it comes to the environment [portfolio]."

His view was that Dr Smith had made a mistake but didn't act intentionally, or dishonestly, Mr Key said. He was defending his former minister again in July, saying that some separate cronyism allegations were found to be no cause for concern and there was nothing in them to rule out a return to Cabinet.

In a further hint that an elevation is in the wind, yesterday a spokeswoman said that while speculation was premature, the prime minister held Dr Smith in high regard.

The same goes for the party in Nelson. Though the political newsletter Trans-Tasman not unexpectedly downgraded his performance from 7/10 in 2011 to 5.5 for 2012, he got a standing ovation at the electorate's annual meeting last year.

While Dr Smith has been enjoying a summer break with his family in Nelson, Mr Key must have been pondering what to do. If David Carter becomes Speaker on January 29, as expected, the important primary industries and local government portfolios must be given to others.

It seems probable that one of National's farmer members is likely to be promoted - but there is nothing to stop Mr Key splitting primary industries into divisions. Might associate minister, Horowhenua farmer Nathan Guy, be given agriculture, with fishing and forestry for Dr Smith? Might he get local government back and with it the opportunity to drive through the reforms he introduced last year?

While nobody is expecting a major Cabinet reorganisation, Mr Key must also consider the Labour portfolio vacated by Kate Wilkinson in the wake of the Pike River disaster report, having made it clear that Chris Finlayson is only a temporary replacement.

It is surely likely that Dr Smith will fit somewhere into this mix. If so, he will return to Cabinet reinvigorated.

"The work as a minister is incredibly intense," he said. "When I resigned, it takes a while to realise that you're no longer carrying that huge burden on your shoulders. It's certainly been refreshing and I've spent a lot more time reconnecting with the Nelson community."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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