Editorial: Ministerial irresponsibility

Last updated 16:28 22/03/2012
SMITH STEPS DOWN: Nick Smith resigned from his ministerial portfolios over letters he wrote as a minister to help a close friend.
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ
SMITH STEPS DOWN: Nick Smith resigned from his ministerial portfolios over letters he wrote as a minister to help a close friend.

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He may not have been gone by lunchtime but it was definitely all over by afternoon tea.

And if the now former minister Nick Smith didn't spend yesterday morning feeling like a dead man walking, it could only be because he had learnt nothing from two decades in politics.

For the rest of the country, all that was missing was the resignation letter.

That came soon enough, apparently drafted by Dr Smith on an ACC notepad on his flight from Nelson to Wellington yesterday morning.

Dr Smith has resigned from his current ministerial portfolios of Local Government, Climate Change and the Environment but his resignation was sparked by his actions as ACC Minister in the previous National-led Government, when he wrote a reference on ministerial letterhead for his friend and ACC claimant Bronwyn Pullar.

The reference was for Ms Pullar to use in her medical assessment for a claim she had lodged with ACC.

While not the crime of the century, the use of ministerial letterhead was clearly an error of judgment, as even Dr Smith's leader, John Key, has admitted.

A second error of judgment occurred when Dr Smith failed to disclose that he knew Ms Pullar and therefore had a conflict of interest when signing off a response from ACC to a constituent advocating on her behalf.

Ms Pullar seems to be a woman of considerable persuasion, terrier-like tenacity and well-placed friends. It seems few National Party MPs have not been subject to her entreaties that they intervene in her drawnout stoush with ACC over a claim arising from a cycling accident she had about 10 years ago.

Dr Smith's weakness was in succumbing to those entreaties, against his own better judgment at the time, it seems.

Still, an error is an error, and Dr Smith can hardly lay claim to being a tyro when it comes to the rules governing ministerial behaviour. Green MP Kevin Hague hit the nail on the head when he observed: "He is not a junior minister, he is a senior experienced minister and this is an absolutely fundamental breach of the Cabinet manual and ministerial responsibility."

Where to now for Dr Smith? This is not the first time in his colourful political career that he has moved rapidly from the front echelons of his party to the back.

He has faced contempt of court and defamation proceedings, and was voted "worst-behaved MP" of the year in 2004, after he was ordered to withdraw and apologise 10 times and was four times expelled from the House. And he was dumped as National's deputy leader in 2003 after only weeks in the job after concerns about his erratic performance.

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But like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, he has always come back. It is unlikely anything in his latest misadventure has dented his popularity with the voters of Nelson, a seat he has held since 1990. In last year's election he beat his high-profile Labour rival, Maryan Street, by 6633 votes.

So it is likely that after some time in the wilderness of the backbenches he may once again return to the Cabinet table. His experience and reputation for hard work remain undiminished.

And it is very likely that he has learnt his lesson about the need to remain staunch in the face of tenacious terriers.

- The Southland Times

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