Catriona MacLennan: Only a broad-ranging inquiry will do to tackle allegations

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Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party John Key. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Prime Minister and Leader of the National Party John Key. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Prime Minister John Key should accept the lessons of recent history: a limited inquiry into allegations which have unfolded since Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics was published will not suffice.

Mr Key is due soon to announce the full terms of reference for an inquiry into allegations that former Justice Minister Judith Collins was involved in a campaign against former Serious Fraud Office chief executive Adam Feeley.

But it is already plain the narrow inquiry he envisages will be insufficient to address the serious allegations.

Mr Key should announce a broad-based investigation into all the allegations. If he does not, the ongoing release of emails and other information will overtake his limited inquiry.

The position was similar in the mid-1990s after the release of papers relating to tax deals done through the Cook Islands. The papers were tabled in Parliament on March 16, 1994.

Media reports, public concern and serious, unanswered questions led to the announcement of a select committee inquiry into the so-called Winebox deals.

But as events continued to unfold, it fast became clear the inquiry would not have enough scope to address and resolve the issues raised. So the Government announced the establishment of a full Commission of Inquiry, headed by former Chief Justice Sir Ronald Davison.

On the first day of the hearings, Sir Ronald said a large part of the inquiry would be held behind closed doors. However, media reports that the inquiry would be conducted in secret saw that decision reversed almost immediately.

The position is the same now. Nothing less than an independent, public inquiry will suffice to address the questions raised in the past three weeks. Hager's book and the emails released by the Whaledump hacker raise questions which go to the heart of the functioning of our democracy.

We should not expect these issues can be put to bed quickly. The Winebox probe took three years, involved more than 20 sets of court proceedings and produced a report of 1200 pages. That is the price we should accept has to be paid to protect our democracy and ensure our system of government functions effectively.

The convention is Governments do not make major decisions in the three months before an election. So it would not be appropriate for National to act unilaterally to establish a broad inquiry.

A new law governing inquiries into matters of public importance came into force almost exactly a year ago. The Inquiries Act 2013 aims to provide more flexibility for inquiries and to write into law the lessons learned from inquiries into Pike River and the collapse of buildings during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

The act provides for three types of inquiries:

• Royal Commissions established under the authority of Letters Patent.

• Public inquiries set up by the Governor-General by Order in Council.

• Government inquiries initiated by ministers.

The Prime Minister should consult David Cunliffe and set up a wide-ranging inquiry under the new law.

Catriona MacLennan is a former political reporter and covered the Winebox Commission of Inquiry.

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- NZ Herald

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