Bryce Edwards: Stuart Nash’s resignation shows our leaders need a lesson in civics

Bryce Edwards: Stuart Nash’s resignation shows our leaders need a lesson in civics

I teach a first year course at Victoria University of Wellington about government and the political process in New Zealand. In “Introduction to Government and Law”, students learn there are rules preventing senior public servants from getting involved in big political debates – as we have recently witnessed with Rob Campbell – and that government ministers aren’t allowed to interfere in some functions of the state, such as telling the Police where to make prosecutions.

It’s essentially a civics course about how our political system works, and hopefully the 1300 students who take the course each year will go off to work in government departments, businesses and other careers understanding the rules of our political system.

Politicians are fond of complaining about a lack of this type of political education amongst the voting public but, as we’ve seen in the last few weeks, so many of our leaders are themselves unaware of basic political rules.

As with Rob Campbell and other wayward senior public servant appointees like Steve Maharey and Ruth Dyson, Nash has pleaded it was just a mistake and, in defending his actions, he showed his ignorance of the rules. But shouldn’t we expect our leaders to have a much better understanding of the political rules about integrity? After all, Nash is no newbie – he’s been a minister since 2017, and an MP for 15 years.

The Rules Stuart Nash broke

The Minister of Police texted his resignation to the Prime Minister yesterday at about 2pm. Up until that point, he had been publicly defending the indefensible, which suggests that, in all likelihood, his resignation was a forced one.

So, what led to this? Two years ago Nash called Police Commissioner Andrew Coster about a decision a judge had made. The case involved a Southlander who had lost his firearms license in 2017, subsequently ignored the gun buyback scheme, and in 2021 was found to possess numerous firearms including an AR-15. On conviction, he was given a sentence of community detention.

Nash believed this judgement was terrible and the offender should have been jailed, so he phoned the Police Commissioner and asked “surely you’re going to appeal this?” Effectively, Nash’s question to the Commissioner about appealing can be seen as an instruction to the Police.

This is a very clear violation of constitutional rules in which government ministers are not allowed to in any way direct the Police in how they carry out their operations, including prosecutions. As Herald political editor Claire Trevett has written, “there are strict rules about not interfering in decisions undertaken by police”, and “there is no such thing as a friendly chat with a Police Commissioner when you’re a minister. It is one of the most politically sensitive relationships that there is.” She says his actions raise “questions about the separation of powers between the three branches of government”.

The Cabinet Manual – the rules for Ministers in how they govern – is very clear about this. Here’s the key section: “Ministers should bear in mind that they have the capacity to exercise considerable influence over the public service. Ministers should take care to ensure that their intentions are not misunderstood, and that they do not influence officials inappropriately, or involve themselves in matters that are not their responsibility.”

Nash has also criticised the judiciary’s decisions, saying on Newstalk ZB yesterday that, in the case of the firearms sentence, “I think that was a terrible decision by the judge.” He also sent a message on the radio to the judiciary, saying judges need to “read the room” on public attitudes to law and order.

The Cabinet Manual is also black and white on this issue, explaining ministers should not comment “adversely on the impartiality, personal views, or ability of any judge”.

By his actions and statements, Nash has shown that he doesn’t understand the constitutional independence of the police and the courts. He doesn’t understand the key rule that ministers cannot interfere with the police.

As Stuff’s political editor Luke Malpass writes today, “citizens deserve to know their justice will be not be influenced by ministers of the Crown calling up the police commissioner and suggesting to them, in any manner, to go harder on someone.”

1News’ Felix Desmarais elaborates on the importance of this, arguing that “ministerial influence over police operational matters is the first step on the long road to a police state. There must be a separation of powers, both real and perceived. It’s one of the fragile and precious threads upholding democracy. That’s why it’s codified – the Cabinet Manual is painfully, explicitly clear”.

Mateship problem in New Zealand politics

There is a cosiness in New Zealand politics that arises partly from the fact that we are a small and intimate society. It means close connections between powerful people are common, including between politicians, businesspeople, and public servants. It makes for a relaxed politics, in which integrity rules aren’t as strongly observed as in other countries.

The problem is that many of our leaders are “mates” with each other – across the many different spheres of power and influence.

Ironically this mateship was even advertised by Stuart Nash in his defence of his violation of the rules. When confronted by the media about his phone call to the Police Commissioner, Nash explained: “I was chewing the fat with a guy who was a mate”.

Nash elaborated on how this wasn’t a big deal to get a call from a “mate”: “The Police Commissioner is a very enabled, very smart man who can make his own decisions, when he gets a mate calling him, questioning about the veracity of a case, it’s up to him to determine.”

Furthermore, the Commissioner himself essentially backed this up yesterday, downplaying the whole conversation: “I regarded the phone call as a venting of that frustration, and nothing more. I felt this was a rhetorical question, not a request, and I did not take any action following the phone call.”

Nash should be fired from Cabinet

The Prime Minister has decided not to fire Nash from Cabinet completely, allowing him to keep his other ministerial roles of economic development, forestry and oceans and fisheries. Hipkins has defended keeping Nash on as a minister saying that the loss of the Police portfolio is “proportionate” enough as a punishment.

But it won’t be enough to satisfy others, because Nash’s mistake wasn’t made in his role as Police Minister, but as a minister in general.

Leading constitutional academic Andrew Geddis has therefore come out this morning with a call on the AM Show for Nash to be fired from Cabinet: “I think he breached ministerial standards and… he doesn’t seem to understand what those rules are or why they’re there… Frankly, I think he’s also ruled himself as being suitable to be a minister. I think he probably should be gone from Cabinet altogether.”

Former minister Peter Dunne also went on the AM Show to say that Nash has to go: “I think he should’ve resigned altogether for this simple reason: the Cabinet manual makes it clear that you don’t interfere with court decisions and the police have constabulary independence – he breached both those counts”.

Dunne credits Hipkins with moving with speed on Nash’s Police portfolio, but says that “the timidity of the judgment” in leaving Nash in his overall job, will distract from that and won’t allow the Government to “move on” from the issue.

Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan also argues today that Nash is turning into a liability for the Labour Government, pointing out that recently, and especially since the cyclone, he’s “done some weird stuff”.

Here’s du Plessis-Allan’s list of Nash’s mistakes: “He took umbrage at the warning that power might be out for two weeks after the cyclone, he said it was alarmist and over the top based on who knows what, because some people are without power and it’s been a month. His response to gang crime was to plead with the gangs to pull their heads in. He defended the forestry companies saying most of the slash wasn’t theirs when it actually overwhelmingly is.”

She argues that Nash is likely to create more embarrassment in his other portfolios.

Similarly, Luke Malpass questions whether Hipkins can allow Nash to stay in Cabinet: “His judgement has to be in question, and it is difficult to see how he can continue to function effectively when he was prepared to make the call he did and then not realise he shouldn’t have made it.”

But Malpass points out that although Nash is “not regarded as a particularly effective minister”, he’s been useful for Labour because he’s got a persona as “an important jack-the-lad type figure in a Labour Party that has had issues in the past appealing to men”.

Other commentators say that Nash has become a liability because of his “bravado”. Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch reports: “Beehive sources behind the scenes were in disbelief, saying the now former Police Minister had ‘too much testosterone’ and – brutally – that his actions were ‘dumb as f***’.”

Newsroom political editor Jo Moir argues today that Hipkins would be wise to reconsider keeping Nash on, as he has failed to “kill off” the controversy with his halfway measure of only taking away his Police role. She thinks he needs to go completely, and that the PM should announce another reshuffle: “Hipkins has done nothing to respond to Nash’s inability to identify that his actions were unwise, unprofessional, and made him unfit for any ministerial role. If after almost six years as a minister, Nash still doesn’t know what breaching the Cabinet manual looks like how can Hipkins trust him not to do it again?”

Replacement for Nash

Megan Woods has been temporarily put in charge of the Police portfolio, but is unlikely to continue in it. According to Jenna Lynch, Hipkins is going to make a decision on his permanent replacement before Monday.

It will have to be a very senior Cabinet minister, and one who is up to the challenge of convincing the public that Labour is tough enough on law and order. The leading contender for this is Andrew Little, who is currently without any heavy portfolios.

Lynch reports, “Little’s already got six portfolios – Defence, GCSB, NZSIS, Public Service, Treaty Negotiations and the Terror Attack inquiry – but a lot of those would work well with Police.” She points out that Hipkins will need a very safe pair of hands, as the next appointment will be the fifth Police Minister in less than a year.

Lynch also points to Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty as a possibility but notes McAnulty himself has stated he’s “already got a lot on”, especially with Emergency Management and Three Waters. But if Hipkins really wants to replace Nash with someone with a similar conservative, provincial and straight-talking persona, then McAnulty will be the best choice.

Integrity problems not limited to Nash

Regardless of who is chosen as the Police Minister, or whether Nash is allowed to stay on in Cabinet, the Opposition will – and should – keep up pressure on the Government’s failings in terms of political integrity.

Of course, this is not a problem that is unique to the current Labour Government. When National was last in government John Key was forced to fire Maurice Williamson in 2014 for also calling the Police to enquire what they were doing about a particular investigation involving a financial donor to the National Party.

What’s more, National’s own integrity is still under question over MP Barbara Kuriger’s misuse of her authority in her campaign with the Ministry for Primary Industries’ in which she has inappropriately been pursuing her family’s own case relating to animal cruelty charges. As Jo Moir points out today, “Luxon will need to give some serious thought to how tough he goes on Hipkins keeping Nash in other roles, when Kuriger’s lapse of judgment was just as serious and over a more prolonged period.”

Conflicts of interest are too often coming up on all sides of politics. Perhaps it’s time for all MPs and senior public officials to sign up for a civics class, so that they can be reacquainted with the rules about integrity in public office.

 

Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  

 

Further reading on Stuart Nash stepping down as Police Minister

Jo Moir (Newsroom): Nash’s poor judgment only half the story
Claire Trevett (Herald): Stuart Nash quits as Police Minister: Why ‘chewing the fat’ with Police Commissioner Andrew Coster cost him the role (paywalled)
Felix Desmarais (1News): Analysis: Nash’s space cadet moment dents Labour’s poll positivity
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Stuart Nash’s downfall and the dangers of big-dick politics
Herald: Stuart Nash is a controversial minister who isn’t afraid to speak his mind
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): ‘He should go altogether’: Leading law expert, former MP call for Nash to be stripped of all ministerial titles
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Stuart Nash beaten by his own bravado – and who could become the new Police Minister
Glenn McConnell and Thomas Manch (Stuff0: Ruthless Chris Hipkins moves against Stuart Nash and purges another pre-election problem
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): How Stuart Nash went from suiting up NASA astronaut to resigning as Police Minister in just few hours
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Newstalk ZB): Stuart Nash had become a walking liability for Labour anyway
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): Six police ministers in six years fails all of us
James Halpin and Mike White (Stuff): Stuart Nash said a court decision should be appealed – what was the ruling about?
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Losing a portfolio is not the same as being sacked as a Minister
Jacqui Van Der Kaay (Democracy Project): Integrity issues at the heart of resignation
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Police Commissioner Andrew Coster says Stuart Nash was ‘venting frustration’ in phone call that led to minister resigning
RNZ: Stuart Nash has resigned as police minister, PM Hipkins says
Glenn McConnell and Luke Malpass (Stuff): Stuart Nash resigns as police minister after encouraging police commissioner to appeal a ruling
1News: Stuart Nash resigns as Police Minister amid interference claims
Felix Desmarais (1News): Nash defiant over asking Police Commissioner about appealing decision
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Stuart Nash says ‘police interference’ claim was just him ‘chewing fat’ with top cop
Adam Pearse (Herald): Opposition parties demand Police Minister Stuart Nash resign after he criticised judge’s decision
Russell Palmer (RNZ): Calls for Police Minister Stuart Nash to resign over ‘interference’

 

Other items of interest and importance today

PARLIAMENT
Henry Cooke: Why a teal deal wouldn’t work
Peter Dunne: Hapless Greens shafted by Hipkins but have nowhere else to go
Graham Adams (The Platform): Hipkins adopts John Key’s ‘ordinary bloke’ schtick
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Is Labour plotting a tax hike, a tax cut – or both? (paywalled)
Brent Edwards (NBR): Chris Hipkins’ strategy to win back centrist voters (paywalled)
Gordon Campbell: On the Hipkins cutbacks, banking industry ‘resilience’, and the major Saudi/Iran deal
Karl du Fresne: Hipkins has no time to lose
Ben Thomas (Stuff): Contest for political centre more puzzle than race
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): Fifty days in, Chris Hipkins’ whirlwind start as Prime Minister
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): The Prime Minister’s ‘rule-in/rule-out’ bit is suffocating
Mike Hosking (Herald): Crime, economy and health stats against the Govt (paywalled)
1News: National still have ‘100% confidence’ in Luxon after poll – Willis
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Nicola Willis sits down with Stuff to talk the political week
Guy Trafford (Interest): Tails to wag the dogs?
Waatea News: Polls missing election issues – Shane Jones
Herald: Max Key on ‘hating’ father Sir John Key, pressures of growing up as PM’s son

CLIMATE CHANGE, CYCLONE GABRIELLE
Basil Sharp (Stuff): When the storms strike: balancing social costs with private interests
Hamish Cardwell (RNZ): Group appeals to MPs for urgent action to reduce climate change impact
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Revealed: The climate cost of Chris Hipkins’ U-turns and fossil fuel subsidies
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): What $500m could do for climate and cost of living
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Greens want Minister for Zero Waste, take more shots at Labour’s policy ‘error’
Seni Iasona (Newshub): Greenpeace protesters turn Fonterra’s Auckland HQ into flood zone in climate protest
Hamish Cardwell (RNZ): Niwa scientist in ‘no doubt’ climate change behind Cyclone Gabrielle’s intensity
Michael Neilson (Herald): Cyclone Gabrielle: Grant Robertson announces another $25m for affected businesses as Government support tops $100m
Denise Piper (Stuff): Government doubles cyclone recovery funding for businesses
RNZ: Cyclone Recovery Unit appoints chief executive
Tom Kitchin (RNZ): The Detail: Preventing a communications blackout in the next big disaster
Claudette Hauiti (Waatea News): National keen for Māori to hop on its electric train

EDUCATION
Anna Whyte (Stuff): Why the government is driving a hard bargain as teachers leave the class for the picket line
1News: Jan Tinetti ‘very disappointed’ ahead of teacher strike today
Seni Iasona (Newshub): Education Minister concedes working conditions, pay ‘not good enough’ as teachers prepare to strike
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): Nicola Willis says teachers’ pay should keep pace with inflation, but won’t commit to it if National wins
1News: ‘Underpaid and undervalued’: Greens support teachers’ strike
Herald Editorial: Teachers strike about more than money (paywalled)
Sapeer Mayro (Stuff): National teacher strike: What’s going on today – and why
Jayden Holmes (Today FM): Number of teachers decreasing as profession becomes less popular amidst union strikes
Alwyn Poole (Herald): Why I don’t support the teachers’ strike (paywalled)
1News: Education Review Office ‘deeply concerned’ about racism in schools
Akula Sharma (Herald): 1 in 5 ethnic students experience racist bullying at school, report says
Lee Kenny (Stuff): Former polytech boss launches petition to ‘remove Te Pūkenga’s board and CEO’
Robin Averill (Newsroom): Why assessing literacy and numeracy is not so simple
Herald: Otago University takes historic and bold step to becoming a Te Tiriti-led institution
Stuff: New Māori name and symbol proposed for the University of Otago

TRANSPORT
Ben Leahy (Herald): City Rail Link $1b blowout: Wayne Brown says he will hold tough talks with Government over bill
Thomas Couglan (Herald): Transport Minister Michael Wood pours cold water on Government picking up $1b City Rail Link bill
Ben Leahy (Herald): City Rail Link $1.07 billion budget blowout: Auckland rail project requests extra funding
Todd Niall (Stuff): City Rail Link boss blames $1 billion blow-out on Covid-19
RNZ: Auckland’s City Rail Link cost climbs by $1 billion
Erin Johnson (Stuff): Aucklanders to pay higher public transport fares from April
Herald: Auckland public transport fares rise for first time in two years
Richard Harman (Politik): Speed limits hit pot holes (paywalled)
John Minto (Daily Blog): Yes, there is a big double-banger policy which would attack climate change and the cost-of-living crisis simultaneously
Lloyd Burr (Today FM): We just really suck at encouraging public transport use
Georgina Campbell (Herald): ‘Degree of chaos’: Minister says KiwiRail needs to do better on ferry reliability (paywalled)
RNZ: Improving transport sector a big part in dealing with country’s climate challenges – National MP
Tom Hunt (Dominion Post): Bustastrophe’ leaves Wellington transport campaigner on the footpath

LOCAL GOVERNMENT
Felix Desmarais (1News): Poll: How well do people understand Three Waters co-governance?
Herald: Three Waters co-governance: More than a third say they don’t know what it means – poll
Todd Niall (Stuff): Wayne Brown paid Topham Guerin $58k for post-flood logos, videos and advice
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Maurice Williamson, back on the Razor Gang
Bernard Hickey: A challenge to Wayne Brown’s debt crisis excuse
Jonty Dine (RNZ): Floods and cyclone add to Auckland Council’s perfect storm of financial woes
Naida Glavish (Herald): Kaipara mayor should step down and step out
Stewart Sowman-Lund (Spinoff): Behind the scenes at council after the mayor uses the n-word
Virginia Fallon (Stuff): Nobby, the N-Word and men behaving sadly
Craig Ashworth (Local Democracy Reporting): Water pressure for council and iwi over environment reforms
RNZ: Council to investigate Wellington Water’s process for looking into leaky pipes after landslip
Finlay Dunseath (Dominion Post): ‘100% preventable’: Leak complaints known for months before road washed out
Ruth Hill (RNZ) Family forced from Lower Hutt home by slip says council complicit in extended hardship
Tina Law (Press): Definitely not’: Residents refuse to pay ‘stupid’ excess water charge in Christchurch
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Yay 16 year olds can vote in rigged Auckland Mayoralty elections

HEALTH
Phil Pennington (RNZ): Government denies interest in health public-private partnerships, despite references in documents
Kristie Boland (Stuff): Surgeons forced to decide which patients have ‘the worst cancer and won’t survive’ as crisis deepens
Rowan Quinn (RNZ): Te Whatu Ora still checking health data after ED figures revealed incorrect
RNZ: Health system in Canterbury described as in crisis
Jim Mann (The Conversation): NZ’s evidence-based response to COVID has saved lives – we could do better when it comes to other major diseases
Rachael Kelly (Stuff): Covid-19 cases increase in the South Island, new booster programme due to begin
Jamie Morton (Herald): Why NZ should prepare for another bumper flu season
Jimmy Ellingham (RNZ): Alarm over massive cost overrun for much delayed mental health ward
Pokere Paewai (RNZ): ‘Our rangatahi deserve better’: Experts urge vape shop restrictions to address ‘epidemic’
Magda Rosin and Cliona Ni Mhurchu (Newsroom): Supermarket ‘super deals’ cost less but we pay for it with our health
Jo Cribb (Newsroom): Smile and the world smiles with you (unless your teeth are less than pearly white)

BANKS
Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): Amid fears for small players, big banks agree to a competition inquiry
Rebecca Stevenson (Interest): A NZ bank with a low-profit approach
Richard Meade (The Conversation): Rising bank profits highlight tensions between competition watchdogs and central banks
Jonathan Mitchell (NBR): What happens if an NZ bank folds? (paywalled)

MOSQUE ATTACKS, CHRISTCHURCH CALL
Adam Pearse (Herald): PM Chris Hipkins: Private commemoration of Christchurch’s March 15 terror attack preferred by community
Katie Scotcher (RNZ): Hipkins hints Ardern could continue Christchurch Call work
Adam Burns (RNZ): Unity Week keeping solidarity strong as mosque attacks commemorated

ECONOMY, COST OF LIVING
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): Cost-of-living crunch: How much do we really need to earn to keep up?
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): Q&A: What’s really happening with the cost of living?
RNZ: Supermarket prices: How a standard shop compares, from 2022-2023
1News: Recession fears in New Zealand as GDP figures loom
Dan Brunskill (Interest): Stats NZ reports worst current account deficit on record but forecast to narrow as tourism returns
Andy Fyers (BusinessDesk): Record deficit is ’cause for concern’ (paywalled)
RNZ: ‘Worse than unsatisfactory’: RBNZ and Govt criticised over inflation, housing boom

EMPLOYMENT
Jenée Tibshraeny (Herald): Contractor or employee? Disappointment over Govt stalling work to clarify the difference (paywalled)
Conor Knell (Stuff): Port worker deaths spur industry-wide action to improve safety
Alexia Russell (RNZ): The Detail: Silicosis: How engineered stone is killing tradies
Joshua McKenzie-Brown (Attitude): Disability Employment – The Experience

FOREIGN AFFAIRS
RNZ: Minister Andrew Little heads to eight-nation counter-terror meeting
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Aukus alliance ‘won’t shut out NZ’ – US official
Adam Pearse (Herald): Australia reminded of nuclear weapons ban, as it goes on submarine shopping spree
Thomas Manch (Stuff): High-ranking White House official Kurt Campbell to visit New Zealand