Editorial: The right thing to do

Last updated 05:00 22/03/2012

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OPINION: In the end, it was a pretty quick journey from "not a good look" to "the right thing to do", despite a short stopover at "not as bad as it looks".

Which was presumably the junction Nick Smith was sitting at when he told yesterday's Nelson Mail he wouldn't be resigning over a letter he'd written for a friend relating to an ACC claim. Dr Smith was ACC Minister at the time and the letter, concerning Bronwyn Pullar's state of health prior to an accident, was written on a ministerial letterhead.

It was plainly a terrible look for Dr Smith and his party.

When he talked to the Nelson Mail yesterday, though, his intention appeared to be to ride things out, despite the obstacles in his path. And he seemed then to have the support of his leader. John Key had rejected opposition calls to sack him, calling his decision to write the letter "an error of judgment" and saying the experienced Dr Smith had not breached the Cabinet manual.

Which begged a couple of questions.

Firstly, does describing an action as "an error of judgment" downgrade its seriousness, making it easier to forgive?

Well, theoretically it wouldn't be as serious as a wilful breach of the rules. Looked at in a legal context, it would imply there was no intent behind the breach.

But in the political arena, it's questionable whether there's room to draw the distinction, especially when an action causes embarrassment for a party and its leader. It's not unreasonable to argue that people in positions of great responsibility should exercise superior judgment.

The second obvious question is what exactly does the Cabinet manual have to say about such a situation? Because in the wash-up to Dr Smith's resignation yesterday afternoon, Labour leader David Shearer voiced an opinion diametrically opposed to Mr Key's on its contents.

"If you read the Cabinet manual, it's a clear breach of the manual. It wasn't just a minor breach, it was a significant breach," he said.

The full extent of what changed yesterday morning to have Dr Smith delivering a resignation speech in the House by just after lunchtime isn't clear, except that he was careful to point out he'd erred twice in relation to Ms Pullar.

There's no doubt Dr Smith made mistakes, though whether he deserved to lose his portfolios over them is open to debate. The tough decision was the right thing to do by his party, however. And he was at least able to bring a degree of dignity to his departure.

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- The Timaru Herald

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