Key Points:

In a bid to clear the decks after a horror year, senior Cabinet minister Trevor Mallard has pleaded guilty to a fighting charge and apologised to a communications consultant he attacked as incompetent and sad.

Both moves came as a surprise and it is understood they followed urging from Prime Minister Helen Clark for Mr Mallard to draw a line under the two matters before the end of the year.

Mr Mallard entered his guilty plea yesterday at his second appearance in the Wellington District Court to face a private prosecution from accountant Graham McCready.

Early this month, the long-serving MP had pleaded not guilty to the original charge that he assaulted National MP Tau Henare in a lobby adjacent to Parliament's debating chamber. This was despite his having publicly apologised for the scuffle.

In court yesterday, he admitted a lesser charge of fighting in a public place - a lower-level offence that does not carry a prison sentence and does not fall under the Crimes Act.

Mr Mallard agreed to donate $500 to a Salvation Army drug and alcohol rehabilitation course, a recipient suggested by Mr McCready.

Outside court the minister said he was not proud of pleading guilty to fighting but "it's in a different category to assault which I was certainly not guilty of".

He then walked straight over to Parliament and sought the leave of the House to make an apology to Erin Leigh, the Ministry for the Environment contractor he had previously attacked while speaking under the protection of parliamentary privilege.

"I now believe it was not wise to make those comments. I apologise to her," Mr Mallard told Parliament.

For almost two weeks, Mr Mallard had refused to say sorry to Ms Leigh.

He came under pressure to apologise after Environment Ministry Hugh Logan issued a surprise statement saying the advice he had given Mr Mallard about Ms Leigh - which apparently formed the basis of the minister's attack on her - was never intended to reflect on her performance.

He said her work had been professional and of good quality.

Mr Mallard's refusal to apologise when that happened coincided with a period of criticism for the Labour-led Government over the controversial Electoral Finance Bill, and Labour has slipped well behind National in recent polls.

His apology now comes just before a State Services Commission report into the claims of politicisation at the Environment Ministry is expected to released.

National Party state services spokesman Gerry Brownlee yesterday asked if Mr Mallard had perhaps heard what was coming in the report.

"It has been clear for weeks now that Mr Mallard defamed Ms Leigh, then refused to repeat the smear outside Parliament where he could be sued," Mr Brownlee said. "Trevor Mallard should explain why he suddenly felt compelled to apologise today, having strongly resisted the invitation to do so previously."

What Trevor Mallard said
Outside court

Clearly I shouldn't have been involved in the fight to start with. I was involved in the fight and the matter is now finished.

Moments later in Parliament

On the 22nd of November in response to two questions I made comments in relation to Ms Erin Leigh. On reflection I now believe it was not wise to make those comments. I apologise to her

- NZPA