Bill Ralston: A bungle of the Worth kind

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What a mess. You look at the rolling political disaster of the Richard Worth scandal and it is obvious that this Government has passed through the speed wobbles I mentioned a couple of weeks ago and it's now in danger of suffering what air crash investigators would call "catastrophic failure".

That is the correct engineering term when bits start falling off the fuselage and there can be no doubt great chunks of National's credibility are flaking away.

Because of the police investigation into the allegations of the Korean woman I will make no comment on the substance of that matter. While my own personal opinion of Worth has always been low I have to agree with the statement issued by his public relations advisers that he has not, as yet, been charged with any offence, he has had no chance to publicly defend himself against the accusations, and there has been a rush to judgment in the media that is, at this time, unsubstantiated by fact or evidence.

It is the Government's handling of the issues surrounding Richard Worth that causes the most alarm.

At 9.21 am on June 3, like the rest of the media, I received a short email statement from Richard Worth stating he was resigning his ministerial portfolio and would be making no further comment.

Seven minutes later another arrived from Prime Minister John Key's office saying he had accepted the resignation and would be making no further comment.

Hello? What were they thinking? A minister of the Crown resigns and the Government has nothing to say? Did anyone in the Administration seriously think journalists in newsrooms across the country would simply say, "Hey Richard Worth's resigned but no one's talking. Pity, well, where shall we go for lunch today?"

As one, the Press Gallery arose like a flock of shrieking parakeets. You cannot immediately shut down something this big by remaining silent. That fact must have become obvious almost immediately because just over an hour later Key held a press conference at which he was peppered with questions and forced to drip-feed a few more details.

A couple of hours later in the foyer of Parliament he was cornered in another impromptu press conference and had some more information leveraged out of him by journalists. The net effect of this bungled release of the bad news was to make Key look evasive, someone withholding the full truth - in short, everything Labour has attempted to portray him as for the past two years.

He strode into the House taking a deep breath, brow furrowed with the expression of a man about to receive a severe flogging. And he did.

The Government tried to batten down the hatches again, citing the police investigation as a reason for no further comment, but was promptly gazumped when Labour's Phil Goff revealed a previous case of alleged harassment of a woman that he had reported to Key weeks before.

The problem with the Goff allegations is that he told Key only some considerable time, perhaps months, after first receiving the information that an Indian woman alleged Worth repeatedly made sexually inappropriate texts and phone calls to her.

He produced no affidavit from her and no texts were given to support the claim. Key instructed one of his senior staffers to investigate. Worth reportedly denied all, and threatened libel action against the woman. In a case where it was Worth's word against an anonymous woman, Key was forced to accept his minister's assurance.

Here you have to ask why Key delegated such an important task to a staff member? Why did he not immediately confront Worth himself? With hindsight that was a mistake and it was a serious error not to push Goff to come up with more evidence that might have supported a real investigation by the PM's office.

Another serious error of judgment came in the case of the Korean woman's allegations.

Key found out on May 26 and seems to have made up his mind to sack Worth at that point but waited nearly a full week to do the deed.

Why didn't he act immediately? Sacking Richard Worth on the eve of the Budget would have been a good move in the long tradition of governments "taking out the garbage" before a major event. And the Budget announcements might have taken some of the media heat off National. Presumably someone decided they didn't want to take the gloss off the Budget, but it didn't have a lot of gloss to begin with.

It was a shambles of a week for National. At a time when the country needs clear decisive leadership focused solely on the critical issues affecting the nation it is completely distracted and floundering in a squalid mess of its own making.

- Herald on Sunday

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