Editorial: Collins inquiry should wait until election dust settles

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Former National Party MP Judith Collins makes a statement to media following her resignation. Photo / Getty Images
Former National Party MP Judith Collins makes a statement to media following her resignation. Photo / Getty Images

If there is one thing all parties in the election can agree on, it is that an independent inquiry is needed to find out whether Judith Collins as Justice Minister was "gunning" for the head of the Serious Fraud Office during its investigation of Mark Hotchin and Hanover Finance. Nobody wants an inquiry more than Ms Collins, who denies doing any such thing, and asked the Prime Minister for just such an investigation when he forced her resignation on Saturday. He might announce its terms in the next day or two but he should not.

We are less than three weeks from an election. The political contest is too highly charged for a cross-party agreement on the terms of reference. National would want to restrict an inquiry to the conduct of Ms Collins but Labour, the Greens and Winston Peters are gunning for John Key. Now that Mr Key has found a private email written by blogger Cameron Slater to be sufficient evidence to sack his Justice Minister, he will find it harder to deny that Slater's versions of dealings with his office warrant a wider exercise.

The right time to set up an inquiry is after the election, when it would happen no matter what side is governing. If National is returned, Mr Key says Ms Collins will not be in his Cabinet, in which case she would still be anxious to clear her name. If Labour and the Greens take power, a more wide-ranging inquisition might be commissioned but it would be a calmer, more objective project than they would agree to in the present climate.

The Prime Minister's staff are already to be quizzed by the Inspector General of Intelligence on the role of his office in the release to Slater of an SIS document that was politically sensitive. Mr Key has not been called to give evidence but he should invite Cheryl Gwyn to interrogate him too.

It is hard to believe the SIS would put political information into the public arena without the Prime Minister's knowledge.

But the question hanging over Ms Collins is far more worrying. The SFO's former head, Adam Feeley, says he would not have briefed ministers on investigations if he had any suspicion the information would be passed to others. There is no evidence the former Justice Minister passed any such information to her good friend Slater who, it turns out, was working for people working for Hotchin.

There is nothing to suggest she knew he was working for Hotchin.

Whether she was "gunning" for Mr Feeley, as Slater stated in the email to his associates, is highly doubtful. Slater admits he had "embellished" that message somewhat, as happens when fringe political operators want to sound like important players. It might not have taken more than a murmur of interest on her part for him to pass the word that she was "gunning" for Mr Feeley and that "any information we can provide on his background is appreciated".

If Ms Collins is found to be a victim of Slater's big-noting rather than an accomplice, there is a larger question arising from Mr Feeley's statement yesterday. Should a director of a law enforcement agency ever brief ministers on a particular investigation? Governments are supposed to keep their distance from police operations. There is no need for ministers to take any interest in particular cases. When a case involves someone well known but not of political significance, a briefing can serve no purpose other than to satisfy a minister's curiosity. Curious types are unlikely to keep it to themselves.

If a proper post-election inquiry results in nothing more than a strict rule that operational matters are not for ministers' ears, it will have done some good. But an inquiry set up before the election would be torn apart by argument before it starts.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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