McCully escapes in­quiry noose

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

So the Govern­ment plans to con­duct a min­is­te­rial in­quiry into how the Malaysian diplo­mat’s case has been han­dled.

Re­port­edly though, the terms of ref­er­ence will rule out ex­am­in­ing the role of For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Mur­ray McCully.

The wide-rang­ing and ex­ten­sive Pike River in­quiry was clearly an ex­cep­tion to the rule.

Other high-level in­quiries have also been set up in ways likely to lay the en­tire blame on of­fi­cials, and woe be­tide any­one who goes be­yond their terms of ref­er­ence to sug­gest other­wise.

With the Ere­bus in­quiry for in­stance, Jus­tice Peter Ma­hon cor­rectly con­cluded that the blame had un­fairly been placed on the of­fi­cials – ie, the pi­lots – when in his view, it had been the changes to the Ere­bus flight co-or­di­nates that had been the prime cause of the tragedy.

Ma­hon also found that Air New Zealand staff had sup­pressed ev­i­dence and lied to the in­quiry.

Sub­se­quently, the Court of Ap­peal ruled that Ma­hon had – among other things – ex­ceeded his terms of ref­er­ence.

Stay­ing within the terms of ref­er­ence is eas­ier said than done though, when the trail of ev­i­dence so clearly leads else­where. Try as it might, any thor­ough in­quiry into the han­dling of the Malaysian diplo­mat’s al­leged at­tack on Ta­nia Billings­ley could find it dif­fi­cult to avoid Ma­hon’s fate.

In prac­tice, it would seem vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to sep­a­rate McCully’s re­sponse from the role of the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade of­fi­cials, given that con­tact be­tween of­fi­cials and McCully’s staff would have been on a con­tin­u­ous, two-way ba­sis.

Weekly at least, of­fi­cials rou­tinely re­port on all sig­nif­i­cant events that a min­is­ter should know about and in turn, the min­is­ter’s staff rou­tinely ask of­fi­cials about the progress of any and all events that may have im­pli­ca­tions for the min­is­ter, or for Cab­i­net.

Take a hy­po­thet­i­cal case – where, say, a Ja­panese tourist gets in­jured here in an ad­ven­ture tourism ac­ci­dent.

There would be daily, let alone weekly, traf­fic be­tween of­fi­cials and the Tourism Min­is­ter about the con­di­tion of the tourist, about the ad­vice given to the Ja­panese Em­bassy and its re­sponse, and on the ram­i­fi­ca­tions for our tourism trade.

The Malaysian diplo­mat’s sit­u­a­tion would have been flagged as a far more im­por­tant is­sue.

Malaysia is not only a val­ued friend, near- neigh­bour and trad­ing part­ner, but is also en­gaged with New Zealand in sen­si­tive Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship trade talks where Malaysia’s stance on tobacco ad­ver­tis­ing and the man­age­ment of State Owned En­ter­prises are highly rel­e­vant mat­ters to the New Zealand ne­go­tia­tors.

Al­le­ga­tions of crim­i­nal be­hav­iour that could trig­ger a claim for diplo­matic im­mu­nity would not only have been a Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade con­cern, but could po­ten­tially af­fect our ne­go­ti­a­tions on the TransPa­cific Part­ner­ship.

It would be very sur­pris­ing then if McCully’s staff – let alone the min­istry of­fi­cials – should have been pas­sively dis­en­gaged for seven whole weeks when it came to keep­ing the min­is­ter in­formed about the progress and po­ten­tial reper­cus­sions of the in­ci­dent.

Surely any in­quiry worth its salt would feel com­pelled to ex­am­ine the tim­ing and con­tent of the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween min­istry of­fi­cials and McCully’s staff, and be­tween McCully’s staff and their coun­ter­parts in, for ex­am­ple, Trade Min­is­ter Tim Groser’s of­fice.

There should be brief­ing notes, and a paper trail.

GOR­DON CAMP­BELL

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