A failure of judgement

What a difference a day makes.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister John Key said National MP and cabinet minister Nick Smith had been "unwise" for having written a reference letter on ACC letterhead for a friend while he was minister of that department, but implied it was not a hanging offence. By yesterday the Prime Minister's perception had changed: Dr Smith had "exercised very poor judgment", had "let himself down", and had resigned his portfolios.

Dr Smith is not the only one who has let himself down. It was evident even before the emergence of a further purported misjudgement, that the Local Government, Environment, and Climate Change Minister had contravened not only Cabinet Manual rules, but the good judgement upon which confidence in the offices of cabinet ministers, and indeed of government, depends.

Mr Key should have recognised that immediately and taken action, either to acquire Dr Smith's resignation, or to dismiss him, rather than wait for the furore to grow to a point where it had the potential to damage his own reputation and that of his Government.

As ACC Minister, Dr Smith wrote and signed a reference on ACC letterhead which appeared to intercede on behalf of an ACC claimant. Specifically, he offered his view that the woman concerned was a capable, dynamic person before a 2002 bicycle accident in which she suffered head injuries. The woman, Bronwyn Pullar, was not only Dr Smith's friend, but a National Party activist.

With these revelations, to the original offence of conflict of interest - ministers of the Crown should not use their influence to assist friends or family - is added the tarnishing spectre of cronyism: being prepared to pull strings to help either friends or politically like-minded individuals. Mr Key needs to be wary of the potential for lasting damage were the notion gain traction that his Government is more than usually inclined to such habits.

On taking office in 2008, Mr Key promised his ministers would aspire to the highest standards of propriety. In January, he himself was in the headlines over the disclosure his Helensville electorate chairman Stephen McElrea had been appointed to the board of New Zealand on Air - where he was becoming conspicuous for the alleged politically aligned nature of his interventions. Equally, eyebrows were raised recently over the quality of the process that led to the appointment of former cabinet minister Dr Wayne Mapp to the Law Commission. There is nothing illegal or necessarily improper in either of these instances but, once acquired, perception can be difficult to dispel.

In the scramble to justify Dr Smith's belated resignation, a second "offence" has come to light. Dr Smith signed another letter relating to Ms Pullar without acknowledging his conflict of interest. Two of his colleagues, who also knew Ms Pullar, did precisely this and disqualified themselves from association with the case because of it. That the vastly experienced Dr Smith did not only adds to speculation about the nature and extent of his relationship with her; and it fuels curiosity about how, and possibly why, this National Party activist ended up in possession of a large number of ACC case files, some of them extremely sensitive.

Dr Smith entered Parliament in 1990 when he was just 25 years old. He has served there for 21 years and during that time has contributed significantly as a minister of the Crown and as a robust opposition politician. His tenure has been eventful and colourful, having been found guilty of contempt of court on one occasion and involved in defamation actions on others.

Few would question his passion and his commitment, and even some of those on the opposition benches, privately, might feel a degree of sympathy for the all-too-human nature of his folly. But when it comes to judgement, particularly when it is exercised in the name of the Crown, there is little room for error of the kind revealed by his actions. Dr Smith failed himself in making those errors and failed again in not resigning earlier. Mr Key failed him, too - and his own party - in not insisting on an immediate departure.