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Chris Ford: The Nick Smith resignation: political scandal now part of our culture

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 Nick Smith's sudden resignation yesterday surely signalled the end of scandal free politics in New Zealand.

While past Cabinet ministers have either resigned or been sacked over scandals involving misuse of ministerial perks, conflict of interest allegations and sexual peccadilloes since at least the Labour-Alliance Government came to power in 2000, we can now kiss goodbye forever to the notion of political cleanliness following Smith's resignation.

I wrote in a previous political blog about the rising incidence of political scandal in New Zealand over the last thirty years. Once upon a time, when I was growing up in the 1970s, this country didn't know political scandal. If we heard anything about political scandals, it tended to come from Australia, Britain or the US. But no, we never thought that our politicians would get into trouble in Godzone.

But that all changed with the Marginal Lands Board affair of the 1980s. I went into this scandal in a previous blog but suffice to say then Deputy Prime Minister and Lands Minister Duncan MacIntyre (who was a key figure in it) survived in Cabinet thanks to then Prime Minister Muldoon's patronage. MacIntyre even went onto become Deputy PM a year later, in 1981.

Then we had the Maori Loans scandal during the Fourth Labour Government, a scandal run by none other than Winston Peters in his earlier incarnation as a National MP. Suffice to say then Maori Affairs Minister Koro Wetere (who was at the centre of this storm) went onto survive too.

While Roger Douglas, Trevor De Cleene and Richard Prebble respectively resigned and were sacked from the Labour Cabinet in 1988, their terminations were purely on matters of political principle. 

However, in the year 2000, with a 24 hour news cycle and the information media age now in full swing, we had our first ever scandal related political sacking, namely, when then Maori Affairs Minister Dover Samuels lost his job over historic sex allegations. Their followed a succession of ministerial ejections under Helen Clark with Ruth Dyson, Marian Hobbs, Philida Bunkle, John Tamihere, David Benson-Pope, Winston Peters and David Parker all losing their heads to Clark's ruthless enforcement of political cleanliness over favouritism in the years that followed. Taito Philip-Field remained in Cabinet but was later sidelined when corruption allegations (later proven) surfaced in the late 2000s as well.

Under John Key, the desire to shake government free of any tainted ministers has continued. Richard Worth, Pansy Wong, Phil Heatley (temporarily) and now Nick Smith have all had to walk to the plank during National's short time in government. I have no doubt that as this government ages and as more ministers and MPs make complex decisions that their maybe more casualties. National's political position could become terminal if there are any more political scandals.

Even so, I noticed that this morning's edition of my local rag, the Otago Daily Times, carried the Smith resignation story on the front page but not as the lead item. I wonder if this is a signal that the New Zealand are becoming just as blase as their overseas counterparts are about political scandal. And I couldn't help but think either that the pro-Tory ODT glossed over Smith's resignation when it gave full blown lead story treatment to the sacking of Labour MP Darren Hughes from that party's frontbench last year.

Truly, Smith's resignation signals the end of political innocence in New Zealand. And that's a shame.




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