National Party leader Judith Collins warned her caucus early last month that media were about to break a scandal involving one of the party’s MPs.
POLITIK has been told she did not name Nick Smith, who on Monday resigned from Parliament, saying he was shortly to become the subject of a media story about an inquiry into his behaviour to staff being conducted by the Parliamentary Services Commission.
But nothing appeared in the media after Collins’ warning.
Then Collins told Smith last Friday a story would appear this Tuesday. Smith has said that it was his understanding that a story would appear which persuaded him to resign.
But so far, no story has appeared other than those reacting to his resignation.
It appears either by accident or intent that Collins forced Smith’s resignation because of her claims of the imminent publication of the story.
It also seems likely that she had known about the incident that lies behind the resignation for nearly a year and not acted on that information.
Accounts vary as to what happened, but it seems there was an altercation between Smith and his Executive Assistant (a male), which was heard by another staff member (a female) in the corridor.
That third person recorded the noise coming from Smith’s office and laid a complaint with the Parliamentary Services Commission. It is not known whether the Commission has the recording.
The matter was also referred to Collins’ Chief of Staff, Megan Campbell.
It would be axiomatic that she would have briefed Collins on the matter at the time.
One staff member from that period told POLITIK that the party was dealing with the scandals involving Andrew Falloon and Hamish Walker in the fortnight leading up to the allegations about Smith.
In those circumstances, his case seemed minor compared with the other two MPs.
In that context, it might have been easy for Collins to ignore the Smith case. She appeared to hold in some regard.
She had already promoted him to position 18 in her Shadow Cabinet; a position he maintained after the election even though he lost his seat and had to become a list MP.
But now, almost a year after the incident happened, she has raised it again with her caucus.
And then someone spoke to Smith last Friday. POLITIK understands that person was Collins.
“I was advised on Friday that the inquiry and its details have been leaked to the media for release tomorrow,” Smith said in his resignation statement on Monday.
But nothing has appeared in the media beyond follow-ups to that statement.
POLITIK understands that the victim and possibly the complainant have draft excerpts from a report which has been prepared by an outside consultant for Parliamentary Services.
That, presumably, is what Collins believed was about to leak.
It may still.
But Smith has already resigned, and that paves the way for Harete Hipango to return to Parliament.
She is next on National’s list.
The Maori lawyer and former MP from Whanganui is a close ally of Collins. Though she holds conservative views on social issues like abortion, Hipango is a protegee of the ultra-liberal former Whanganui MP, Chester Borrows.
She has not been afraid to challenge National and was critical of Simon Bridges’ proposal to form an anti-gang police unit modelled on New South Wales, Task Force Raptor.
Hipango visited NSW to see the task force and came away sceptical.
Before the meeting, she emailed the Whanganui Chronicle saying she had some concerns and that it was a “drastic step” and “forcefully provocative”.
“I shall be listening with an acute and keen mind, denoting that Australia as a nation is not as advanced as Aotearoa, New Zealand, in addressing the contextual social and historical issues, grievances, injustices and consequences of its societal indigenous inequities as New Zealand has done,” she said in the email.
Hipango told the Chronicle yesterday that her return to Parliament was not unexpected.
“I’d been briefed by those who have been in the politics sphere for a lot longer than me that it was only a matter of time and that it would happen,” Hipango said.
But in losing Smith, National loses a self-described centrist who has been the party’s leading environmental spokesperson even though he has not always held the portfolio.
He was a founder of the Blue-Greens and has held his Nelson seat since 1990.
In November 2003, he was elected as Leader Don Brash’s deputy only to take “stress” leave almost immediately after a fiery caucus meeting in which he accused colleagues of betrayal in not voting for Bill English.
Within days, backed by then-leader Don Brash, Gerry Brownlee announced he would challenge Smith for the deputy leadership, and Smith then resigned.
Smith had a reputation within National for being hot-tempered.
His former colleague in the Young Nats, now the party’s pollster, posted on Monday on his Kiwiblog that Smith’s resignation over the incident with his staffer was not surprising.
“Nick was known to fly off the handle from time to time,” he wrote.
But one former staffer, Brian Anderton, paid a fulsome tribute to Smith on Facebook last night.
“I had the pleasure of working with Nick for more than six years,” he said.
“During this time, Nick has become a good friend and a mentor of mine.
“He is one of the highest achieving and delivering Ministers in our history.
“A good man who has dedicated his career to Aotearoa. I hope that’s not forgotten.
“It was a true privilege working alongside him.”
The Parliamentary Services investigation has now taken at least seven months. Smith has known that he was being investigated all through that time.
One Wellington lawyer, familiar with the Parliamentary Service process, told POLITIK yesterday the private sector handled these sorts of issues with more urgency because employers were less patient and wanted problems sorted.
But Parliament is not the private sector, and politics will always complicate things as it appears to have done so here.