Time for some spring cleaning
Sad to report, but a forced resignation from Cabinet rarely brings down the curtain on a political career. Often, it barely results in a red card.
In recent times, the likes of Peter Dunne and Nick Smith spent only a short period in the sin bin before bounding back into the field of play as if nothing had happened.
For them, nothing much did change.
The default position of Cabinet Ministers who leave under a cloud is to deny any wrongdoing at all – without any display of penitence, or a promise to mend their ways.
Former Justice Minister Judith Collins, for example, will probably be banking on a speedy return to business as usual, after her actions have been given a onceover via an inquiry set up by Prime Minister John Key.
Collins may not be quite so lucky.
Last Friday, her resignation was triggered by an email from blogger Cameron Slater that apparently implicated her in a campaign to undermine the then head of the Serious Fraud Office, Adam Feeley.
That came in the wake of other grimy allegations about Collins’ dealings with Slater, in Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics.
Collins had barely survived the Oravida scandal, where special treatment was allegedly afforded to a business run by her husband.
After that debacle, Key had reportedly given Collins her ‘‘last, last warning’’.
Since Collins resigned, there have been further revelations that the Slater-led campaign to undermine the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Markets Authority may have been bankrolled by failed financier Mark Hotchin.
At the time, Hotchin was being investigated over the failure of his company, Hanover Finance.
Last year, the authorities finally decided not to prosecute Hotchin over the Hanover collapse in 2008, which cost 13,000 investors a total of $465 million.
If further revelations do tie Collins into such a campaign – which seemingly could amount to a conspiracy to thwart the course of justice – then not returning to Cabinet may become the least of her problems.
For Key, these are serious matters.
Collins’ exit gives credibility to Hager’s book, which links the Prime Minister’s office to people engaged in unsavoury and (if the Hotchin money trail can be proven) potentially criminal behaviour.
So far, Key has claimed to know nothing about this, or about the speedy release by the SIS (which he nominally controls) of damaging information about Labour leader Phil Goff, shortly before the 2011 election.
With the advent of spring, maybe Key needs to embark on some spring cleaning.
If only to restore dignity to the position he holds, the Prime Minister will need to condemn Slater, and not continue, directly and indirectly, to defend him.
Someone in his office may also need to be held accountable for the actions of staffer Jason Ede.
Finally, the inquiry into the Collins affair – and the wider issues raised by the Dirty Politics revelations – has to be a truly independent one, headed perhaps by a former High Court judge.
The credibility issues involved go to the heart of our democracy.
After all, ordinary citizens who transgress are shown little mercy. Crackdowns on welfare fraud are trumpeted by our politicians, who seem equally proud of their ‘‘Three Strikes’’ tough stance on law and order.
Yet when it comes to policing their own behaviour, politicians seem to be endlessly forgiving.