John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Minister's enemies want to pin something on him

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully

Murray McCully will not be resigning from the Cabinet over his ministry's inept handling of the alleged sex attack involving a staff member at the Malaysian High Commission.

He is under no constitutional obligation to do so. He is under no substantial political pressure (as yet) to do so. He has done nothing that is politically shady or morally dubious which would give his opponents the grounds for demanding that he does so.

Even if the foreign minister did offer his resignation, it is most unlikely that John Key would accept it. In short, it is going to take much more than the victim in the alleged attack calling on him to step down for that to actually happen.

Tania Billingsley's beef with McCully stretches beyond being deeply unhappy about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blunder that saw her alleged attacker return to Malaysia. She has accused McCully of being intent on pinning responsibility and blame for the subsequent diplomatic brouhaha on to everyone else but himself.

She is right. But McCully made no apology for doing so.

As a minister, he has the right to be able to rely on the ministry's officials to keep him fully briefed on things he needs to know about. Instead, he was kept largely in the dark.

McCully has every right to blame the officials. It is difficult to recall a case where staff in a ministry's head office have been as culpable for such a fiasco as has been the case with this one. The final verdict in the blame-game will have to await the independent inquiry ordered by chief executive John Allen, who was even more out of the loop than McCully.

However, when it comes to ministerial responsibility - the issue at stake here - McCully can justifiably point to the officials' culpability and quote the old Bob Semple line that being the minister meant he was responsible - but not to blame.

One test of ministerial responsibility of the resigning kind is whether a minister could reasonably be expected to have known something was going to go wrong.

This is where things get trickier for McCully. His reputation as a highly pragmatic back-room fixer with his fingers on the Beehive pulse means people find it difficult to believe he did not know what was going on; that, advised of the arrest, he did not follow it up at a later date; that he did not intervene. No one has found any holes in McCully's version of events. But he carries an awful lot of political baggage, much of it negative. This mess is a chance for his enemies to punish him for sins, more perceived than real, committed elsewhere.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- 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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