By VERNON SMALL deputy political editor
For the price of a $9.50 taxi fare, Ruth Dyson has lost her ministerial job and more than $45,000 a year in pay.
The Minister for Disability Issues resigned all her portfolios yesterday because of a politically fatal decision to drive herself home after having a few drinks at the office.
She could have taken a cab home courtesy of the taxpayer or dialled a chauffeur-driven crown limousine.
Instead, she chose to get behind the wheel of her husband's car.
She was stopped by a random police check and breath-tested in the driveway of her central Wellington home at 12.30 am.
It is understood the test found she had an alcohol reading of 744 micrograms a litre of breath - almost twice the legal limit.
Within hours, her resignation was on Prime Minister Helen Clark's desk, and she was gone from cabinet, although she will stay on as MP for Banks Peninsula.
Ms Dyson's final evening as a minister started with a flight from Christchurch to Wellington, landing about 9.30 pm on Monday.
A witness reportedly saw her have a drink in the Koru Club in Christchurch and order wine on the plane.
She was met at Wellington airport by a chauffeur-driven crown car - available 24 hours a day to ministers - which dropped her at her Hankey St house.
She then took husband Martin Ward's 1994 silver Subaru Legacy to the Beehive, where she worked from about 10 pm until 12.15 am, drinking several glasses of wine.
The 2.5km drive home would have taken her through the central business district and the city fringes back to Mount Cook.
She was flagged down by police in Hopper St, only metres from home, and breath-tested after she pulled into her driveway.
The test found she was over the legal limit of 400 micrograms of alcohol a litre of breath.
Early yesterday, Ms Dyson rang Helen Clark, who had landed in Auckland on her way back from the Pacific Islands Forum about the time Ms Dyson was being tested, and offered to quit.
Helen Clark said she accepted the resignation of her long-time political ally with regret.
While she left the door open for Ms Dyson to eventually return to the Executive, the Prime Minister was not pulling her punches.
"Ruth is one of our hardest-working ministers. But she saw no choice but to offer the resignation.
"Last week, she was lecturing Norm Hewitt about being a role model. She knows she did something wrong and she thought it appropriate that she stands down."
Ms Dyson was widely criticised after saying Wellington rugby captain Hewitt was a poor role model for playing in the NPC final with a broken arm.
He was yesterday staying clear of the controversy, declining to comment on his critic's downfall, which saw her pay drop from nearly $129,000 a year to $83,000.
Helen Clark said Ms Dyson drank at least three glasses of wine in her office, which would put a woman over the limit.
It was, Helen Clark said, "not particularly efficient" for ministers to be drinking while they were working and she advised against it.
She had also reminded ministers they had cars at their disposal and they should be used.
"I don't want people ever getting in a car when they've been drinking and getting behind the wheel."
She understood Ms Dyson did not have any previous convictions for drink driving.
Nothing in Ms Dyson's behaviour prompted the police stop, which had been a random test.
Road accident researcher Dr John Bailey said that based on experimental tests, a woman of Ruth Dyson's age and weight would have to drink at least one bottle of wine within an hour of being tested to register 744 mcg breath alcohol.
Variations in glass sizes and the alcoholic strength of wine meant that she could have drunk between three and six glasses of wine within an hour of being tested to register 744 mcg.
The case will be heard on December 4 in Wellington District Court.
If convicted, Ms Dyson could face a maximum three-month jail term or a $4500 fine, plus the mandatory six-month driving disqualification.
Ministers were yesterday putting a brave face on her resignation, which overshadowed a two-day Labour caucus retreat assessing the Government's first year in office.
Finance Minister Michael Cullen said that by admitting her mistake and immediately resigning, Ms Dyson was accepting a level of ministerial responsibility akin to the British practice, and was setting a good example.
Education Minister Trevor Mallard, speaking at a New Zealand Paralympics press conference at Auckland International Airport, said: "I want to pass on Ruth's apologies. She's a very good friend of mine who did something very silly."
Helen Clark said Ms Dyson would not be replaced as a minister outside cabinet. Her disability portfolio would go to Lianne Dalziel, and her roles as Associate Minister of Accident Insurance, Health, Social Services and Employment would not be filled.
Ms Dyson yesterday avoided interviews, but in a brief statement said: "I recognise such behaviour calls into question my ability to continue to hold my ministerial warrants, and I have therefore offered the Prime Minister my resignation from all ministerial positions forthwith.
"I sincerely regret both my behaviour and the embarrassment this will cause the Government."
MPs from both sides of the House expressed regret and praised Ms Dyson's decision to quit, although National deputy leader Wyatt Creech criticised Helen Clark for leaving the door open for her return - something he said she had not done for former Maori Affairs Minister Dover Samuels.