Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political round-up: Questions over 'corruption'

Local Government Minister Nick Smith speaking to the media after announcing his decision to resign as a cabinet minister in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Local Government Minister Nick Smith speaking to the media after announcing his decision to resign as a cabinet minister in Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

John Key has put the Nick Smith ACC scandal behind him, and he wants everyone else to do likewise. However, serious questions remain about corruption, cronyism, the Prime Minister's own involvement, how Smith could have made such a mistake and whether an independent inquiry is needed. These questions are being widely discussed in the media today, and are surveyed below.

1) What is corruption, and did Nick Smith have to resign due to his corrupt actions as a Minister in the National Government?

'Corruption' is generally defined in political science as the use of power by government officials or politicians for illegitimate private gain. Note that 'corruption' does not necessarily have to involve illegal activity - it can merely involve breaching public expectations of how officials and politicians should operate.

So, did Nick Smith's actions cross the line into 'corruption'? There seems to be a consensus that, in writing a ministerial letter to help his friend Bronwyn Pullar in her negotiations with his own government department, Smith attempted to use his ministerial position to obtain private gain for a friend.

Nick Smith's ACC letters are now available online here, here, here and here.

Vernon Small says that 'it is difficult to see what Dr Smith's reference would achieve, other than to flex political muscle and indicate she had friends in high places... From that moment, it was known within ACC that she was a friend of the minister. However professional ACC staff were, it would have been at the back of their minds when dealing with her' - see: Inquiry inevitable into lapse of judgment by a smart minister.

Newspaper editorials today seem clear that such actions are wrong - for example the ODT: 'ministers of the Crown should not use their influence to assist friends or family' (A failure of judgement). TVNZ blogger, Tim Watkin puts it clearly too: 'Ministers don't get to do favours for friends. Especially not on letterhead... Whether she's an old friend or an old lover is irrelevant. Ministers can't act for friends' - see: Nick Smith - A Greek Tragedy of his own making. See also: the Timaru Herald editorial, The right thing to do.

Of course Smith's resignation due to 'improper behaviour' is not this Government's first ministerial departure: there have now been four serious cases of ministers resigning their warrants due to 'misuse of their position or improper conduct' - the others being Richard Worth, Phil Heatley and Pansy Wong - see: Adam Bennett and Amelia Romanos' Nick Smith resigns over ACC fiasco and the Herald's Key's Cabinet Hall of Shame.

Key's Government is in real danger of being tarnished with the reputation for 'political sleaze', and labels of 'cronyism and sleaze' can be incredibly damaging to a government - as argued today in John Armstrong's very good column: National's image and ratings take a big hit.

The situation is made worse by the 'friend' in question being a former Auckland National Party publicity director, and someone closely connected with the party elite. So if it is not corruption, then Smith's actions certainly appear to involve cronyism, which the ODT defines today as: 'being prepared to pull strings to help either friends or politically like-minded individuals'. As Tim Watkin points out, this will be very badly received by others that are not so well-connected with National Party and its ministers: 'Tens of thousands of New Zealanders have had to wade through ACC claims. A fair chunk of those will have had to fight for one thing or another. They don't get to email their old pal the minister for help, or take their case to several Cabinet ministers, or get meetings with senior managers, or lobby board members. Pullar shouldn't have received any special assistance or access just because she's well-connected. And clearly she did.

Indeed, I reckon that happens quite a lot in this small country and it's not good'.

Incidents like this ACC scandal will not only tarnish this Government's reputation, but also potentially impact on the country's international image of being corruption-free. Currently the international anti-corruption agency Transparency International places New Zealand at number one in its global corruption index - a position that is jealously protected by all politicians. Yet it's clear that a political fight is now in full swing over issues of corruption, and a lot of mud will be thrown as the competition escalates and becomes nastier. Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First are pushing hard on National, but they'll need to be aware that their own parties might come to suffer from the greater focus on political and personal behaviour.

2) Did the Prime Minister act appropriately over the affair?

John Key clearly attempted to protect Nick Smith and avoid a resignation, which has led to widespread criticism that he failed to deal properly with the scandal as it developed. John Armstrong says that Key has 'mishandled' the scandal, as he 'initially valued loyalty ahead of precaution'. Similarly, Newstalk ZB's article, Push for inquiry into Smith ACC scandal, outlines the criticisms being made, including that of Labour MP Chris Hipkins: 'John Key has never been good at managing conflicts of interest. Conflicts of interest are rife in this government and John Key doesn't care about that'. See also, Peter Wilson's Newswire story, Key in the gun over Smith's resignation, in which Metiria Turei is quoted as saying, 'John Key delayed until he was trapped and that's not good leadership'.

3) Why would a minister make such a 'mistake'?

To many commentators it is curious that a senior government minister would take such a risk, or be blind to such a misguided and inappropriate action. For example, Vernon Small, has said, 'It is simply gob-smacking that Dr Smith would let his guard down and provide the reference after so staunchly and correctly refusing to intercede on her behalf before'. The answer for many seems to relate to the type of relationship that Smith had with Pullar. There's a number of good articles dealing with her today: Stuff's The 'friend' and activist linked to Smith's demise, Andrew Koubaridis and Adam Bennett's Smith scandal: Woman in the storm, and Adam Bennett and Amelia Romanos' Nick Smith resigns over ACC fiasco. But it is Adam Bennett's Fresh letter proves last straw for minister that provides the strongest hint or speculation about the nature of the relationship: 'Commenting later on the events that led to his resignation, Dr Smith did little to dispel speculation that his relationship with Ms Pullar was more than platonic.... Mr Key said he'd had a brief discussion with Dr Smith about his friendship with Ms Pullar. "I don't need to know the details of that friendship. You either have a conflict of interest or you don't, and he clearly did ... and the nature of the relationship is not really material."'

Clearly if the relationship was an intimate one, then this might go some way to explaining how Smith might have acted so inappropriately. People don't always act rationally when strong emotions are involved.

4) Should there be an independent inquiry into the ACC scandal?

John Armstrong says 'Smith's departure will effectively allow Key to shut the door on any kind of inquiry into Smith's behaviour which might embarrass National'. But others disagree - and not just the Opposition parties. Vernon Small says that an inquiry seems 'inevitable', and today's Dominion Post editorial calls for further investigations, as 'Too many questions remain unanswered' - see: Govt minister fell short of standards.

There are also calls for an inquiry from some surprising corners: David Farrar says that although an inquiry 'may not be an attractive option to the Government', 'I am now of the view that an independent inquiry, at a minimum, is necessary' - see: More on the ACC saga. And even Nick Smith is calling for an inquiry (to 'clear his name') - this is detailed in the most thorough account and analysis of the scandal: Tracy Watkins and Vernon Small's Ex-Minister Nick Smith fights to clear name.

The other must-read item on the scandal is the Dim-Post blog, Smith's bad dream. In his own highly succinct manner, Danyl Mclauchlan puts forward a very plausible summary of exactly what has occurred in the scandal: 'Smith had a relationship with Pullar, who then devoted herself to a vendetta against ACC, a department Smith then became the Minister of, which then sent Pullar thousands of confidential case files (under circumstances that are still very murky), which Pullar evidently confronted Smith with in an attempt to reach a settlement. The settlement obviously didn't happen, so Pullar leaked the patient files to the media. Pullar's name was leaked to the media as punishment, either by ACC or their new Minister, Judith Collins, and it's not hard to guess which of the two is more likely to dish out this sort of punitive vengeance. Presumably Collins was unaware that Smith had intervened in Pullar's case'.

For a humourous account of the media furore over the scandal, see Scott Yorke's The ACC Scandal: Live Updates, for discussion of who might eventually replace Nick Smith, see Cameron Slater's Who should replace Nick Smith?, and for backgrounders on the career of Nick Smith, see the following: Nick Smith: This is your life, Nick Smith's political ups and downs, Nick Smith's chequered political career, Powerful brat pack get back together for wake, and ACC debacle not Smith's first controversy. Finally on this topic, the Greens' Kevin Hague also asks some important questions about the scandal in his Frogblog post, ACC: what we really need to ask.

Other important items today include: Bernard Orsman's Port u-turn: Wharfies back to work, Andrea Vance's McCully presses Foreign Affairs chief, Bryan Gould's Tougher approach hints this term is Key's lastv, Chris Trotter's Is Key descending the same staircase as Muldoon?, and Claire Trevett's Bright future for political jousting.

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Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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