Opposition MPs are calling for Labour minister Stuart Nash to relinquish all of his ministerial portfolios during an urgent debate in Parliament after Nash resigned as Police Minister.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, who announced Nash’s resignation this afternoon, says Nash would stay on as minister of Oceans and Fisheries, Economic Development, Forestry and the Cyclone Gabrielle response regional lead for Hawke’s Bay, because Hipkins was confident in the quality of his work in those areas.
Nash this morning revealed on Newstalk ZB he had called Police Commissioner Andrew Coster in 2021 to inquire whether police intended to appeal against the sentencing of man who was given home detention after he was charged with a series of firearms offences.
Nash was not the Police Minister at this time. It was understood no appeal was lodged as a result of Nash’s inquiry.
Speaking with media later today, he defended his comments, said he was just “chewing the fat” with his “mate” Coster and reiterated his criticism of the judge’s decision.
The Cabinet Manual, a document that outlines how ministers should act, states that ministers should not “express any views that are likely to be publicised if they could be regarded as reflecting adversely on the impartiality, personal views, or ability of any judge”.
“Following a long-established principle, Ministers do not comment on or involve themselves in the investigation of offences or the decision as to whether a person should be prosecuted, or on what charge.”
According to the manual, a minister concerned about a sentencing decision should inform the Attorney General.
The Policing Act 2008 also says the Police Commissioner “must act independently of any Minister of the Crown” regarding the investigation and prosecution of offences.
Hipkins said Nash had offered his resignation, but confirmed he would have requested it had Nash not offered it voluntarily.
Hipkins characterised Nash’s actions as a “serious error of judgment”, but he stated his confidence in Nash continuing as a minister.
“The work that he has done so far on the cyclone response, I think, has been really solid work and I do have confidence in the work he’s doing there.”
National MP Chris Bishop successfully petitioned the House today to hold an urgent debate on the matter, which he then described as a “disgraceful episode” that amounted to “unconstitutional behaviour”.
“Leaving aside the inappropriateness of calling the person who you used to be in charge of your mate, as the police minister, that in itself is inappropriate but to hear reported publicly a judicial decision that you as a minister don’t like and then to ring the Police Commissioner, your mate, and say, ‘I think you should probably appeal this’, that just beggars belief, it is an unbelievable dereliction of duty and unconstitutional behaviour.”
He even cited an instance when one of his own committed a similar wrong - former National Party minister Maurice Williamson resigned in 2014 after the Herald revealed he urged police to be on “solid ground” regarding domestic assault charges against wealthy businessman Donghua Liu because he was “investing a lot of money in New Zealand”.
Bishop ended by calling for Nash to be removed from Cabinet.
His position was echoed by Act party leader David Seymour who questioned how Nash was considered capable to execute his other responsibilities in his other.
“If he’s not capable of discharging his duties as Minister of Police then why does the Prime Minister believe he’s capable of doing those other portfolios ... he needs to go.”
Finance Minister Grant Robertson said Nash was a “very proud Police Minister” after initially holding the portfolio in 2017 and now again after Hipkins relinquished it to become Prime Minister.
“All of us know the pride he has in the New Zealand police force, the extent to which he regards this as an important job so I think everybody in the House would recognise the loss of such a portfolio for Mr Nash is a very significant matter,” Robertson said.
He reflected on his own position communicating with police as a local MP during the Parliament occupation and reminded other MPs to take note.
“It’s a fine line for people, I’m not suggesting here in any way Nash’s acts represent a fine line, but it is a fine line for this House and something I would encourage colleagues to reflect upon as we go forward from here as to how we talk about what police do and how we raise issues.”
Labour minister Dr Megan Woods, now the acting Police Minister, commended Hipkins’ swift leadership in dealing with Nash soon after the issue was raised with him.
She emphasised the necessity for ministers to abide by the rules in the Cabinet manual and respect the separation of the branches of Government.
“It’s all well and good to sometimes imagine you’re in the locker room, talking tough about some of these issues, but there are clear divisions that need to be adhered to.”
Labour Minister and Attorney General David Parker was pleased Nash’s inquiry hadn’t prompted any further action.
“The system has worked because there was no appeal so if that was his intention to influence that decision, it didn’t have that effect because those principles are well entrenched in the New Zealand system and respected by the branches of Government and this a rare error.
“The separation of powers is at the cornerstone of our constitutional arrangements and although it gives me no pleasure to speak in this debate ... I am pleased that on all sides of this House, we have reinforced the importance of the separation of powers.”