John Armstrong: The state needs to meet its obligations

By John Armstrong

It was probably just as well Corrections Minister Damien O'Connor was not in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon when Bill English spoke to the adjournment motion.

While the free-for-all debate winding up the parliamentary year allows Labour and National one final go at each other, a feeling of end-of-term release and the approaching festive season mean the parting shots are generally more good humoured than usual.

There was nothing funny in what English had to say, however.

National's deputy leader wanted to talk about the report by the Inspectorate of Corrections into the death of Liam Ashley. This disturbing document had largely been ignored by the House because National had inexplicably opted not to seek a snap debate on Tuesday. That was partly out of nervousness from being seen to exploit the teenager's fate for political gain.

By the next day, National had realised its mistake. English rectified it.

He not only eviscerated O'Connor. He poured the acid over Labour as a whole in a particularly stinging fashion, citing the refusal of anyone to accept responsibility for the death as another example of the pervasive cynicism of a decaying Government.

The Corrections report's record of the final minutes of Liam Ashley's short life makes for grisly, terrifying reading.

Those few pages will surely haunt O'Connor - whom the Prime Minister accurately described as humane and compassionate - for the rest of his life.

The horror story which occurred in the back of that prison van is reason enough for O'Connor to have resigned.

He has instead decided to deal with any guilt by fixing the faults that led to Liam Ashley's murder so it never happens to someone else.

By the time English had finished with O'Connor, however, even Labour MPs must have been asking themselves why the minister was staying in the job.

Judging by last Monday's post-Cabinet press conference, Clark, having read the report, thought long and hard about that.

In the end, she determined both her minister and Barry Matthews, the chief executive of the Corrections Department, were in the "responsible, but not to blame" category, which does not require they quit.

That is arguable in O'Connor's case. And more so with regard to Matthews, who, being responsible for the operational side of the department's work, must carry the can for the horrendous series of "systemic" faults uncovered by the report.

The precedent is the Cave Creek tragedy. Like the shoddily built West Coast viewing platform, the accepted practice for transporting prisoners to court had become woefully deficient. In both cases, the state failed to exercise the due care that could be reasonably expected of it.

The aftermath of Cave Creek similarly saw no rush of resignations, although then-Conservation Minister Denis Marshall asked Jim Bolger whether he should quit.

Bolger said no. But public pressure ultimately forced Marshall to go, along with his head of department.

Matthews checked to see if he still had his minister's confidence. He should have followed the recent example of the head of the Prime Minister's Department, Maarten Wevers , who offered his resignation following the May leak of Budget-sensitive documents.

State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble could similarly have chosen not to accept Matthews' offer.

He would have had reason. Matthews, whom the Prime Minister described as an "excellent" chief executive, has been in the job for just under two years. Many of Corrections' problems pre-date his arrival.

The same applies to O'Connor who took over the portfolio little over a year ago. The Prime Minister would have refused to accept his resignation. That might have looked a little bit too contrived.

But it would surely have been better than the current void which has everyone passing the buck and mouthing platitudinous good intentions, thereby cruelly depriving Liam Ashley's family of closure on the question of responsibility.

Such an offer would have shown that Labour is still good on its promise that individual ministerial responsibility means something.

Instead, Labour's reluctance to hand National's new leadership an end-of-year ministerial scalp won out.

As English observed, that was symbolic of Labour's year. The party could not bring itself to do the right thing - be it paying back the money it rorted from taxpayers to fund its pledge card, or expelling Phillip Field - because of more pressing short-term constraints - the dire state of the Labour Party accounts, and the need to hang on to Field's vote in Parliament.

Symbolism was evident elsewhere on Wednesday afternoon. Labour put up Michael Cullen and Paul Swain as its speakers. Cullen is Labour's best debater. Swain isn't bad either. But he is no longer a minister and is tipped to retire in 2008.

National, in contrast, was positively fizzing as John Key matched Cullen bluster for bluster. Rarely have National MPs risen to their feet in such spontaneous jubilation to applaud a leader.

But the killer contribution came from English, who with Key, are the only real contenders for the title of Politician of the Year.

Helen Clark and Cullen miss out for their seeming inability to realise that they were defending the indefensible in the row over election advertising.

Winston Peters has done much to repair relations with Washington. But he remains as diffident on the foreign stage as he is confident on the domestic one. His party is now polling consistently under the 5 per cent threshold in his frequent absences overseas. How long will his colleagues put up with this? NZ First could be the party to watch next year.

And Act likewise. Rodney Hide has not been the same since he went Dancing with the Stars. And we are not just talking weight loss. Hide's political oomph seems to have deserted him too.

Tariana Turia deserves credit for running a tightly focused and highly disciplined caucus, defying predictions that its large egos would see the Maori Party implode.

Key, of course, made the big leap into leadership. But he did the groundwork last year, which made him leader-in-waiting and Politician of the Year for 2005. And judging on his form so far as leader, he will be on the shortlist next year.

This year the title goes to English, partly for the sheer political machismo and guile he displayed in securing both National's deputy leadership and the shadow finance portfolio - an outcome good for him and the party. He also wins for making the long journey back from the humiliation of losing the leadership to once more being one step removed.

The net effect of the Key-English combination meant the morale of National MPs could not have been higher when they walked out of Parliament on Wednesday. Their unspoken New Year message to Labour contained just two words: game on.

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