The Prime Minister did the right thing yesterday in quickly accepting Maurice Williamson's resignation. He also made appropriately strong comments about the minister "crossing the line" when he phoned the police after wealthy businessman Donghua Liu was arrested on domestic assault charges.
But John Key's swift response could not paper over several troubling aspects of the incident, not least the belief of a man with 27 years' parliamentary experience that he could approach the police in this manner. Or the fact that this is a far from isolated instance of a member of Mr Key's Government displaying so grievous a lack of judgment that it raised questions about their personal ethics.
Yet the lessons arising from this string of transgressions seem not to be being learned.
The Cabinet Manual is clear about ministers interfering in police investigations. It says: "Following a long-established principle, ministers do not involve themselves in deciding whether a person should be prosecuted or on what charge." That principle has been strongly reinforced in the courts, notably in a British Court of Appeal judgment that concluded the police were "answerable to the law and to the law alone". They must be able to focus on their operational responsibilities without political interference or pressure.
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Mr Williamson, however, saw fit to go to them over an incident about which he could have known nothing of pertinence.
Internal police emails say he told a senior police officer that Mr Liu, a National Party donor, was "investing a lot of money in New Zealand", and urged the police to be on "solid ground". This was prefaced by a limp claim that "in no way was he looking to interfere". But his involvement paid dividends. Despite the "long-established principle", the police, wrongly, did what they were asked to do by reviewing the case. As the Prime Minister observed, this would not have happened if Mr Williamson had not picked up the phone.
In the end, the police acted correctly. Inspector Gary Davey told Mr Williamson that "it was ultimately up to Prosecutions to decide whether they could continue with the case". The minister was told further that the best advice he could give Mr Liu was to seek good legal advice.
But that message should have been given to Mr Williamson far earlier. He should have been told that his intervention in the case of an individual was totally unacceptable. Anything less than this suggests insufficient emphasis is being paid to the importance of operational independence, a point reinforced by Mr Williamson's statement that he had called the police on behalf of constituents and other people on numerous occasions.
The police slips did not end there. Mr Williamson's interference remained an internal matter. An Official Information Act request by the Herald for disclosure of documentation in the Liu investigation file that mentioned Mr Williamson was refused on the grounds of privacy and maintenance of the law. But the request did prompt the alerting of the Prime Minister's Office under the "no surprises" policy. Mr Key's adamant response raises obvious questions about why the Herald's request was declined and why the serious misjudgment of one of his ministers was not relayed quickly to the Prime Minister.
The number of such incidents involving members of the Key administration has reached a concerning level. It seems almost as though the Cabinet Manual is an irrelevance unless media disclosure is guaranteed. How much of this behaviour is never revealed, hidden away tidily through "no surprises" - the insistence that bureaucrats warn politicians in advance of potentially embarrassing publicity?
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