It is probably to be expected that Prime Minister John Key would back his Social Development Minister Paula Bennett after it was revealed that a violent street gang member was bailed to her house while awaiting trial. Speaking on Television New Zealand's Breakfast programme on Monday morning just before he left for the Pacific Forum Summit in Papua New Guinea, he expressed "full confidence" in Bennett and said that ministers' and MPs' private lives should remain private.
But Key's insouciant response to the matter was not good enough. He has had his hands full with economic concerns and matters of regional political stability of late, but that was no reason for him - and the minister - to maintain silence in the face of legitimate questions of public interest.
Our report revealed that Bennett had agreed to have Viliami Halaholo bailed to her West Auckland home for 10 months, up to July 2007, while he was awaiting trial on charges of wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm in a vicious gang fight and damaging with intent to steal or extort.
Halaholo, a member of an Avondale street gang called the Thugs of Canal, who is now serving a 4-year jail term, is the partner of Bennett's daughter Ana, and the pair have a daughter, Tiara-Lee, who is now 2.
Yesterday, the minister released two letters that she had written on Halaholo's behalf, one when he was awaiting sentencing and the second when he was being considered for parole, pleading the youngster's case.
On the face of it, and in the absence of any evidence arguing to the contrary, Bennett's decision to take Halaholo under her roof and her pleas in mitigation on his behalf are unexceptionable, understandable and even commendable. At times of strife, particularly when the law is requiring an errant youngster to face the consequences of his actions, family bonds are tested, and those that do not break are precious indeed. It is difficult to imagine that Bennett's motives in allowing her granddaughter's father to be bailed to her home were anything other than entirely blameless. Her personal history, which has not been free of tribulation over which she has triumphed, would equip her to be an ideal guardian of a young man who needed watching over, and the non-custodial remand alternatives, presuming they existed, would very probably have been less satisfactory.
But that is not the issue. As a society, we quite properly regard election to any public office, and particularly to Parliament, as imposing duties of disclosure above and beyond those that attend on normal citizenship. This is particularly true of ministers, which is why they are required to declare their assets. It is for the public, not the executive, to decide what among their private financial arrangements is and is not relevant to the discharge of their public duties.
So it is in this case. Only three years after being elected to Parliament, Bennett has been entrusted with an important cabinet portfolio at what might be regarded as a tender age. There is no evidence that the hospitality she extended to Halaholo compromised her, but the questions this paper wished to put to her and to her boss remain of public importance. When did she become aware that Halaholo was involved in a gang? What contact has she had with other gang members or associates? Did she, in the security vetting that all ministers undergo, disclose her relationship with a convicted violent offender? What discussion has occurred about the potential security risks involved?
It was all very well for the Prime Minister to say, and for Bennett to agree by her silence, that this is a private matter. But neither was so coy about comment when Bennett waded into a brawl at a West Auckland shopping mall and, when in Opposition, the National Party made great capital from Bennett's brave solo-mum battler status, including having her pose with her daughter for the news cameras. If Key's Cabinet ministers do not know that being open with the public is a constitutional duty rather than a PR opportunity, now is a good time for them to learn.