When one of his ministers appears to have run foul of the Cabinet Manual, John Key is prone to defending the culprit on the grounds that the 160-page handbook is only a guide, rather than a set of hard-and-fast rules decreeing what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of ministerial behaviour.

The Prime Minister is right in part. If the breach in standards is really obvious and really serious, then no one needs recourse to the manual to work out what needs to be done. But Key is also in the wrong. If the Cabinet Manual is only a guide, then Simon Bridges, his Transport Minister, is way off the beaten track.

The manual is absolutely clear about the rules which should apply between a Cabinet minister and public servants prior to a byelection. In defending Bridges, Key is devaluing those principles.

Which ever way you look at those rules, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Bridges breached restrictions on the use of information obtained from officials in the pre-election period.


Bridges is adamant he was not in breach; that he sought information about one-lane bridges in the Far North. He did not seek advice from those officials.

The Cabinet Manual, however, expressly warns that before an election "incumbent ministers should ensure that any requests they make for advice or information from their officials is for the purposes of their portfolio responsibilities and not for party political purposes".

You would have to believe in Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy to think the information Bridges received was not used for political purposes.

Furthermore, Bridges announced the bridge upgrade in his capacity as National's "transport spokesman" rather than "Transport Minister", thereby confirming the party political nature of that announcement.

The weakness of Bridges' case is further exposed by Finance Minister Bill English having told Parliament that he did not seek costings from the Treasury because the double-laning project was a "proposal by a political party".

That said, Bridges' flouting of the Cabinet Manual hardly qualifies as a sackable offence.

Bridges could do himself and National a power of good, however, by coming clean and apologising. It would end this unseemly episode and make it harder for Labour to exploit when Parliament resumes.

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