By Pattrick Smellie
The government has lost one of its lynchpin Ministers, Nick Smith, who has resigned over two inappropriate letters written to a personal friend and ACC claimant while he was Minister in charge of the no-fault accident scheme in the last term of Parliament.
In a quavering voice, Smith made his announcement to Parliament as soon as it sat this afternoon, saying he had tendered his resignation from “all portfolios” this morning, and that Prime Minister John Key had accepted.
As well as a letter already revealed yesterday to have been written to a personal friend and former National Party activist, Bronwyn Pullar, Smith said there was a second letter written in March 2010, in which he failed to note his conflict of interest. He said the letter was drafted by ACC staff after a letter originally sent to Associate ACC Minister at the time, Pansy Wong, was referred to him.
Wong was also a friend of Pullar’s and informed her she could not take up her case because of the conflict of interest.
"I made not one error of judgement, but two in dealing with a conflict of interest in respect of a friend who made repeated attempts to me during my period as Minister of ACC to interfere and advocate on her case," Smith told Parliament. "It was an error of judgement in doing the letter, but more-so in it being on ministerial letterhead."
Pullar was also the whistleblower in the recent revelation that ACC had accidentally emailed details relating to sensitive cases, including sex abuse victims, to Pullar inadvertently.
Smith leaves big shoes for Key to fill, having just this week announced major reforms as the Minister of Local Government. As Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, he was the driving force in the Cabinet on domestic climate change and environmental policy, including water allocation and the new regime for the Exclusive Economic Zone.
“I’m disappointed I won’t be about to continue my work in areas I’m passionate about,” said Smith, his composure breaking at the end of his brief statement, after which he immediately left the debating chamber. He will serve out this term of Parliament.
Smith said he “didn’t, in my view, interfere in any way about judgement calls ACC made (on Pullar’s case)”, but he accepted his actions had fallen below the standards required by Ministers.
In an interim measure, Prime Minister John Key said Gerry Brownlee would pick up local government, Craig Foss would take climate change and Chris Finlayson will step into the environment portfolio.
Prime Minister John Key issued the following Statement.
Prime Minister John Key said today he had accepted with sadness the resignation of Dr Nick Smith from his Ministerial portfolios.
The resignation follows questions about Dr Smith’s judgement in supporting an ACC claimant while he was Minister during the previous term.
“It is important that Ministers are seen to actively manage both real and perceived conflicts of interest in the exercise of their duties,” says Mr Key.
“I have always expected high standards from my Ministers - and I will continue to do so.
“Dr Smith has been a hard-working and diligent Minister, but perceptions do matter and he knows he has let himself down.
“I am very disappointed to have lost such a capable Minister. Dr Smith has made a huge contribution to the National Party and to this Government.
“Dr Smith did excellent work in the climate change, local government and environment portfolios. His obvious expertise in these, and other, complex areas will continue to be valued by our Caucus.”
The following Ministers will act in portfolios previously held by Dr Smith: Gerry Brownlee in Local Government, Craig Foss in Climate Change Issues and Chris Finlayson in Environment.