McCully escapes inquiry noose
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.