John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Quick execution, slow explanation

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Messy, messy. Seeing Richard Worth being dumped from his ministerial role yesterday was like watching a slow strangulation as the nature of the allegation made against him became more and more apparent during the day.

Worth's alleged sins are not going to damage the Government in any serious fashion. John Key has made sure of that.

By questioning whether the National MP can remain in Parliament even as an irrelevant backbencher, the Prime Minister has effectively quarantined his now-former Internal Affairs Minister from the rest of the National Party.

Labour has a point, however, in criticising Key for not dealing with Worth a week ago when the Prime Minister says he lost confidence in the MP after hearing of the complaint that subsequently prompted a police investigation.

Last week, however, was Budget week - not a time to be sacking ministers unless you really have to.

What went awry for Key yesterday was his seemingly futile attempt to avoid disclosing the reasons for Worth's "resignation".

Like it or not, ministers are public property and ought not and - as yesterday's events proved - can not expect to have the privacy accorded to lesser mortals unless there are genuine reasons for such protection.

Being investigated by police is not one of them.

Key had no need to protect Worth. He was a minister outside the Cabinet who would have been expected to retire at the next election under threat of demotion to the backbenches.

But when news of Worth's "resignation" broke about 9.30am yesterday, the Prime Minister said the MP's exit from his ministry was because of some "private matters" on which he was not going to elucidate.

That was an open invitation for rumour and speculation to run rife.

Realising the inadequacy of this first response, Key called a press conference. He gave no further detail, but said enough to indicate the allegation was extremely serious.

Under further questioning on his way to Parliament three hours later, Key referred to other alleged examples of inappropriate behaviour on Worth's part, but only intimated they were of a sexual nature.

Key could have saved himself a lot of strife had he been upfront about the nature of the allegation, then shut up and referred all queries to Worth or the police.

It is conceivable Key was dragging things out because of loyalty to Worth. Or the two might have had an agreement not to give the rationale for the exit.

But the uncompromising language at Key's press conference suggested that any loyalty considerations had long evaporated.

Key is proving to be an even tougher disciplinarian than his predecessor, Helen Clark. She fired plenty of ministers, but in most cases indicated there was a road back into the inner sanctum after a suitable period of penance.

Worth received no such reassurance yesterday morning. He has yet to be charged with any crime. But he was not given the option of a stand-down from his portfolios while the matter was investigated.

Quite the opposite. Key was blunt. If Worth had not resigned, he would have sacked him for failing to meet the high standards set by the Prime Minister for his ministerial colleagues.

Rough justice perhaps. But politics dictate that Key deal with the matter promptly and decisively. With some reservations, he has.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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