Political fallout from allegations of sexual assault against a Malaysian High Commission official continues, with the announcement of a full ministerial inquiry into the affair.
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, under siege for how the case has been handled, announced the inquiry this afternoon.
The terms of reference are broad: whether this was an isolated incident or part of a wider pattern; whether officials met their obligations to inform Ministers; and
how any shortcomings revealed can be rectified.
While that does not explicitly include Mr McCully’s own handling of the affair, the question of whether officials met obligations to inform ministers cannot be answered without investigating what ministers were told by officials, and when.
It also includes, more specifically, the questions of whether “proposed talking points” provided by officials for both Mr McCully and Prime Minister John Key were in line with what officials were actually doing, and the question of “what explanation is there for any conflicts between the proposed talking points and the actions officials were taking?”
That question opens up - or should open up - not only behaviour of officials but also behaviour of ministers.
But the main focus of the inquiry, which is being conducted by former Secretary of the Treasury John Whitehead, is clearly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade itself.
MFAT has been through major shake ups since current Secretary for Foreign Affairs John Allen was brought in as a “change agent” in 2009 and his approach has upended a lot of pre-existing protocols, not to mention upset a lot of long serving MFAT officials.
Whether the right protocols were followed, as far as diplomatic immunity, clear communication, and keeping both senior officials and ministers informed, is going to be at the core of this inquiry.
No deadline has been given: the only comment on this in the terms of reference is the report is to be completed in a “timely fashion”.
It is understood this is not likely to be before the September 20 election.
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