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Police interference, bruised relations, National’s challenge

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ judgement is now being questioned while Stuart Nash remains a minister.

NBR columnist Grant Walker speaks with Brent Edwards.

Brent Edwards Fri, 17 Mar 2023

Just weeks after Rob Campbell was sacked as chair of Te Whatu Ora and the Environmental Protection Authority for breaching the public service code of conduct, Stuart Nash has stepped down as Police Minister for breaching the Cabinet manual.

In Nash’s case, though, there is a degree of leniency. He remains Minister of Economic Development, Forestry, and Oceans and Fisheries.

Apparently Prime Minister Chris Hipkins lost confidence in Nash as Police Minister, but not as a minister in other portfolios. Losing police was the sacrifice Nash had to make for his lack of judgement.

It all comes back to Nash criticising a court judgement – which is a no-no for ministers – and for suggesting to Police Commissioner Andrew Coster that the police appeal the judgement. That interference is an even bigger no-no, as it risks politicising the police.

His defence – and he showed little contrition – was he was just talking to a mate. And he rang his “mate” at a time when he was not the police minister. Somehow, that is meant to make it all that much better.

Hipkins did not accept his reasoning and was clear there had been a breach of the Cabinet manual. Nash then resigned from his police portfolio, with Hipkins saying he would have been sacked if he had not done so.

But, if the Prime Minister has lost confidence in Nash in one portfolio, why not the others?

Stuart Nash.

Hipkins’ response was that he thought losing the police portfolio was a “proportionate” response to Nash’s ill-judgement.

Yet Campbell lost all his government responsibilities and arguably his offence was less serious than that of Nash’s.

Good reason for independence

There is good reason for ensuring police operations are independent of political interference and that there is a clear separation between the executive and the judiciary. Blurring that line carries all kinds of risks. One day a minister might suggest – as Nash did – that the police appeal a judgement; the next, they might be suggesting who the police investigate.

Remember too this only came to light because of Nash’s bravado, when he essentially boasted on Newstalk ZB about what he had done.

While Hipkins got some kudos for his initial response, he will come under continued pressure to take further action. Otherwise, it looks like one rule for Labour and another rule for everyone else.

This has the potential to dog Labour until the election and, given Hipkins’ push to remove problematic issues from the Government’s agenda – he announced more this week – it might be smarter to do the same with Nash.

In the end, it is a Prime Minister’s judgement call. The Cabinet Manual does not spell out what should happen to a minister in this situation. Ministers always serve at the discretion of the Prime Minister and, because of that, this matter is increasingly becoming a debate around Hipkins’ judgement or, as many argue, his misjudgement.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.

Both National and Act will continue to prosecute the case that Nash should go. There is one irony in that – as an NBR commenter pointed out – and that is the fact both Opposition parties accuse Labour of being soft on crime and now want a minister removed because he wanted to be tougher on crime.

And sure enough, late yesterday Newstalk ZB revealed Nash had been reprimanded by Attorney-General David Parker in 2020 for publicly commenting on a criminal case before the courts while he was Police Minister.

It renewed calls from the National Party and Act that Nash should be sacked from his other portfolios.

But Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told RNZ that the matter happened in the past and Nash was now on notice for future breaches.

Bruised relationships

While Hipkins has this week removed some of the political irritants the Government might have faced in election year, he has done it at the cost of bruising Labour’s relationships with both the Green Party and Te Pāti Māori. In what is shaping up to be a tight election, he will likely need both if Labour is to be in a position to form the next government.

The Greens have been upset with the removal of the Clean Car Upgrade Scheme, and Te Pāti Māori has told James Shaw he should resign as Climate Change Minister. That could make good political sense for the Greens and enable them to distinguish themselves more clearly from Labour in election year. As it is, given Hipkins’ focus on ‘bread-and-butter’ issues, it is unlikely the Greens will secure any more climate wins this year.

That move might toughen the demands of both the Greens and Te Pāti Māori in any post-election negotiations. Some commentators argue the Greens are in a weak negotiating position because they have ruled out doing a deal with National.

Much will depend though on the numbers. If the Green Party makes up a substantial part of the next Government – which, based on current polls, looks likely – it will be able to push for more action on climate change. That would be given real impetus if Labour also depended on Te Pāti Māori – which has previously been a support partner of National – to get it over the line to form a government.

If the results do fall its way, a third-term Labour-led government will look very different to its two predecessors.

There is, however, just as much chance of a National-Act government being formed after the election, even though National has suffered a dip in polls this year. Its leader Christopher Luxon can hardly get a break. A day after the 1News Kantar Public Poll showed his personal rating back to where it was a year ago, he also tested positive for Covid-19.

It has been a tough week for National Party leader Christopher Luxon.

A great guy

It was left to his fellow MPs to tell media what a great guy he was and that, once the public got to know him, they would think that too.

Maybe they should just forget about the personal popularity poll and focus on policy... and write off the start of this year. With the change of Prime Ministers, followed by floods and a cyclone, there has been very little opportunity for the Opposition to have its voice heard.

But there is a sense now that politics is starting to return to normal. The Nash debacle gives National and Act an attack point against the Government.

But National needs to do more than attack the Government, which so often come across as whining. It needs to start proposing alternative polices and look like a government in waiting, something it has failed to achieve so far.

That means more policy announcements like the one housing spokesperson Chris Bishop made on its proposed rent-to-build scheme, although it went largely unnoticed.

Meanwhile, taxpayers and Auckland ratepayers found out this week they are going to have to pay more for the City Rail Link to be finished. In the latest update, the cost has jumped $1 billion to $5.493b, with CRL Ltd blaming Covid and rising construction costs for the blowout.

The cost of Auckland’s City Rail Link has blown out by another $1 billion.

Good news for the Reserve Bank

Inflation remains a problem but at least the Reserve Bank got a piece of good news this week – for it at least – with the latest GDP figures showing the economy contracted 0.6% in the three months to the end of December. It might be we are heading into the recession the bank said we needed.

Will that prompt it to pause its hike in interest rates? There still remains the risk that, just as it loosened monetary policy too much during the Covid pandemic, it might tighten too much now, making the downturn even worse.

If the economy does fall into a hole, even if it is a shallow one, all the steps Hipkins took this week to ease the way for Labour’s bid for re-election will pale into insignificance. And whether people like Luxon or not won’t matter a jot.


Brent Edwards is NBR’s political editor.

Contact the Writer: brent@nbr.co.nz
News tip? Question? Typo? Let us know: editor@nbr.co.nz
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Police interference, bruised relations, National’s challenge
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