Since the resignation of Northland MP Mike Sabin two weeks ago persistent questions have been asked about what the Prime Minister knew of a police investigation and when he knew it. But those questions beg a much more important one: ought ministers be told anything about an investigation such as this? The disturbing element in the story is not so much that Mr Sabin was given the chair of Parliament's law and order select committee when he was already under investigation but rather that all sides assume the "no surprises" rule in the public service extends to a police inquiry.
Police operations are supposed to be kept at a healthy distance from the government of the day to avoid any suggestion that its work might be influenced by political considerations. Police should keep their minister briefed on general issues and problems they face in their operations but the progress of investigations of particular individuals should rarely be reported to the minister. That rule seems particularly important for investigations of an MP, whether of the Government or Opposition.
Commissioner Mike Bush has refused to say when he briefed his minister on the Sabin matter but he says police had not "dropped the ball" under the no surprises policy. That appears, to the Opposition at least, to suggest that the Police Minister, and therefore the Prime Minister, knew of Mr Sabin's difficulties before he took the chair of the select committee, if not before the election last year.
John Key says he knew nothing about it until Mr Sabin himself told him and insists that, based on what he was told, it was the right decision to let Mr Sabin remain in the committee chair. It is hard to believe Mr Key knew nothing about it earlier. As Labour leader Andrew Little put it, "In our little democracy, the Prime Minister pretty much knows everything and the Police Minister is briefed by his department on sensitive issues ..."
Mr Little may be right on both counts but we hope he is wrong on the second. The Police Minister should not be briefed on an operational matter simply because it is politically "sensitive". If an MP comes under investigation the MP would be wise to inform his party leader before word gets around. If the leader gets to hear of it first the MP will have some explaining to do, but the police should be under no obligation to tell their minister anything about it.
"No surprises" may be a common convention for public servants, requiring them to alert their minister to anything likely to attract adverse public attention, but it should stop short of investigations by law enforcement agencies.
It seems that former Police Minister Anne Tolley and another minister were told before the election that police were investigating an MP but were not told who it was. The new Police Minister, Michael Woodhouse, was told it was Mr Sabin after One News started asking about it. He ought not to have been told even then. It is for the police to tell the public what they can when they can. If that comes as a surprise to a government, too bad.
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