Editorial: Errors of judgment

The MP for Nelson, Nick Smith, has over the past few years won a great deal of respect for his hard work both as a diligent electorate MP and as an effective, capable Cabinet minister.

His work in his constituency has been recognised by the fact that Nelson voters have consistently returned him to Parliament, despite giving their party vote to Labour.

In Cabinet under Prime Minister John Key he has, in recent years, shown a capacity to get his mind around difficult issues on the environment, climate change and ACC and to articulate sensible policies on them.

But Smith has a chequered history. In more than two decades in Parliament, his tendency to rash and injudicious outspokenness has called his judgment into question.

On one occasion, his involvement in a Family Court case led him to make intemperate statements that led to him being found guilty of contempt of court. On another, his advocacy led to his entanglement in a defamation action which ended with Smith making an apology and a confidential settlement. The intensity of his commitment in the battle between Bill English and Don Brash over the leadership of the National Party led him to the brink of a meltdown, after which he lost the deputy leadership, a position he had only just gained.

Now an error of judgment – of such an elementary kind that it is hard to believe someone of his seniority could make it – has led him to lose all his Cabinet responsibilities. The Cabinet Manual governing ministerial conduct makes it clear that not only may it not be appropriate for a minister to intercede in an official matter on behalf of family or associates, it also emphasises that in such matters public perception is important. In one letter on behalf of his friend Bronwyn Pullar in her fight with ACC over a claim, Smith attempted to heed that by stating that "it would be inappropriate for me to comment on Bronwyn's ACC claim issues ... given my current role as minister".

But merely writing the letter, giving his personal view on a matter that was at issue in the dispute, and on a ministerial letterhead was enough to break the rule.

Another, earlier letter that had gone out with Smith's name in his friend's case contained no indication of such a conflict of interest. This transgression is almost inexplicable, given he had written other letters that did manage the conflict properly and a colleague had declined to act in the matter because of the same conflict that Smith faced. There is nothing to show that Smith's actions had any effect on ACC decisions about Pullar, but Smith's lapse of judgment made resignation unavoidable.

The prime minister was slow to recognise the seriousness of the case. Loyalty to an MP with a long career may have played a part in this, as well as respect for the capability Smith has shown in the challenging portfolios that Key has given him. It appears, too, that Key spoke in defence of Smith before seeking advice from the Cabinet Office.

This tendency to speak his mind when asked a question on the fly, and to breezily dismiss what appear to him to be unnecessary technicalities, is part of Key's almost apolitical style and a large part, too, of his appeal to voters. In this case, where the issue was serious and required some reflection, it has led Key astray. Winging it is not always advisable and, if Key makes too many such misjudgments, he may find voters' tolerance of it will wear thin.

The Press