Jane Clifton: What was Nick Smith thinking?

by Fiona Rae / 31 March, 2012
In the great scheme of things he made a small mistake, but still a thumpingly obvious one that has cost him his career.

In the normal course of events, there are people and situations that politicians very quickly learn to avoid. These include anything to do with Scientology, fluoridation, abortion, the gun lobby and, broadly speaking, anybody who fixes them with a glittering eye à la The Ancient Mariner. The latter is the trickiest category to steer clear of, because MPs’ electorate clinics are full of them. They are the walking wounded, typically having come out the wrong end of dealings with the Family Court, an insurance company, an ex-partner, Immigration New Zealand or – as is currently the hot button – the ACC.

We all know someone like this, because they “holdeth one of three” to tell their tale of woe. And we sympathise. We really do. But at some point in such people’s terrible journey, their world has become so small that their albatross has become everything to them. At this point, the only sensible, humane advice anyone can give them is to rule a line under the atrocity, pick up what’s left of their psyches and, as Helen Clark would say, Move On.

Which is only one of the reasons Nick Smith made a dopey, career-blighting mistake in respect of his friend Bronwyn Pullar – a woman who by her own admission in emails had become quite consumed by her albatross. When she badgered him for support in her battle to get accident compensation, he should have kept saying no. And not just for the reasons most of us would have had to say no: that her fight was narrowing her life-focus, that state agencies have disproportionate power over the individual and will always win, that possibly she wasn’t entitled to compo. He had this reason: he was the Minister in Charge of ACC at the time.

Now, we shouldn’t have to put this in italics, but apparently the ferociously bright Smith, who has a doctorate, is one of the few on this earth who understands the emissions trading scheme and even knows how to tie his own shoelaces, was having a major brain outage. After sensibly refusing his friend’s requests for help, he then hit on the idea of attesting to her health and vigour before her accident. Somehow, he thought that even though he was writing in support of his friend on ministerial letterhead, if he just said it would be “inappropriate” to comment on her actual claim, his intercession in support of his friend, a former high-ranking National Party official, in her battle with his department would be okay.

Dear Lord, shoot me now. How many more times do we have to ask the question, of even the most shrewd and purposeful politicians – Rodney Hide when he took his junkets, Trevor Mallard when he nickel-and-dimed it on Trade Me – what were they thinking? Perhaps the question is, why weren’t they thinking?

The case for resignation/sacking doesn’t get much stronger than this. You do not use, or even look as though the thought had momentarily flitted through your mind of using, your ministerial position to advantage a friend, relative, brother-in-law of a long-ago next-door neighbour or, indeed, anyone at all. In the great scheme of things this was a small mistake – but still a thumpingly obvious one. And as Prime Minister John Key was forced to admit, since it was followed by a failure by Smith to disclose his conflict of interest when he signed off another letter the corporation wrote to Pullar along the way, it was one mistake too many.

Although all parties are guilty of cronyism, this affair suggests it is so deeply ingrained that even super-bright MPs like Smith don’t even realise they’re engaging in it, or in danger of being seen to engage in it. The thing about Smith is, he’s not a great one for lengthy deliberation. If there is such a thing as reincarnation, he was a scrappy little cockatoo in a recent past life – to the point where you can actually see his hair rise in a crest when he’s excited in Parliament. (It’s probably static electricity, but the effect is the same.) To have a conversation with Smith is to be high-pressure-hosed with absolutes. Once he has made up his mind about something, he has a go. You’ve only to see the way he’s attacking the local government sector. Tact and diplomacy be damned.

So when someone of whom he was fond – and to take it from Winston Peters, under parliamentary privilege, very fond – asked for help, his instinct was obviously to help if he could. Tellingly, Pullar’s other friend and supporter in this was long-time National Party knuckle-cracker Michelle Boag. Boag argues she has no official party role these days and was involved purely as a civilian, but as a PR maven, she must know the power of a reputation like her own. Again, you can’t fault her for friendship, but no one – least of all ACC officials – could fail to pick up the whiff of Beehive waiting-room upholstery when a client walks into a case meeting with such a muscular political figure as Boag as her advocate.

An inquiry has yet to determine whether, as has been claimed, Pullar made her surrendering of accidentally leaked ACC client details conditional upon her receiving the compensation she has been battling for. But that aside, when you have friends in high places, you’re best to leave them behind when you have dealings like this, because to include them looks just plain ugly.

A further mischief from this affair is that it shifts the focus from the ACC’s case-management stewardship. Suddenly, the news angle is an attempt to bully the corporation, when the more serious problem is the ACC’s sorry record of bilking genuine claimants using underhand tactics. Irrespective of the merits of Pullar’s case, there’s a stack of evidence that officials have arbitrarily changed the rules around some injuries, and have shopped for suitable medical advice accordingly. There’s no secret about its repeated attempts to deem even well-documented accident injuries to be the result of long-term deterioration – in the teeth of specialists’ diagnoses.

Also not looking too crisp for Smith in his retrospective role as ACC minister is the new question mark over his assurances the corporation was ready to be opened to private sector competition.

The present minister, Judith Collins, is trying to be tactful about why this isn’t happening, but it’s clear Smith’s prep on the issue was somewhat gung-ho. It now turns out that unless the corporation is recapitalised – and there’s not a prayer of this given other fiscal priorities – there’s no way it can compete. Insurance companies would cherry-pick big business clients with good deals, leaving small businesses and the ACC to bear the brunt of higher costs elsewhere.

In fairness, Smith is by no means a write-off. In time he may be reappointed to the Cabinet. But it’s just as possible he may in time himself be detaining one-in-three with skinny hand and glittering eye to tell the horror story of the one ghastly mistake that cursed his career. Having to hand over a whopping local government reform agenda that was very dear to his heart – he was elected to his local council barely out of short pants and remains fanatically interested in the field – is a high price to pay. He won’t share the Ancient Mariner’s fate of being condemned to a rotting sea from which “slimy things did crawl with legs” and gloating death heads – but for someone like Smith, demotion to Parliament’s backbench can seem just as unpleasant.
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