Nash exits Cabinet but the quantum of leak remains unknown

Jo Moir

Jo Moir

Wellington, March 30, 2023

Stuart Nash: Apologies to the PM, Constituents and Family (RNZ Photo by Angus Dreaver)

Chris Hipkins spent a huge amount of political capital when he gave Stuart Nash a fourth chance in his Cabinet. Now the Prime Minister faces big questions as to how much confidential Cabinet information has been leaked and the influence it has had.

It has been barely two months since Chris Hipkins became Prime Minister, and he is already into his third Cabinet reshuffle.

When he announced at a last-minute press conference at Parliament on Tuesday (March 28, 2023) evening that he had dismissed Stuart Nash as a Minister, there was no shock or surprise.

Ten days ago, when Hipkins made the decision not to dump the Napier MP from his Cabinet,  despite three blatant breaches of the Cabinet manual, he set in train an inevitable slow and painful wait to be let down once more by Nash.

Egregious Revelations

The most surprising part was that it took so long, and the most damaging aspect is that the latest revelations are so much more egregious and reflect not only on Nash but cast a shadow over Hipkins and his Cabinet colleagues.

Nash’s latest stuff-up in a long list of poor judgments was sending an email in June 2020 to two contacts regarding a commercial rent relief package that Cabinet had considered.

In the email, brought to light by Stuff, the Minister set out his opposition to the Cabinet decision and laid out the positions his colleagues had taken.

The recipients of the email were Troy Bowker and Greg Loveridge, both donors to Nash’s campaign and commercial property owners with an interest in the Cabinet decision.

This came after Nash had already been put on a final warning after it was revealed that he had contacted the Police Commissioner to try and influence a court case, been reprimanded by the Attorney-General for making inappropriate comments about another court case, and used his MP capacity to contact a senior public servant to fast-track an immigration case.

Untenable Actions

Speaking to the media about his decision to dismiss Nash, Hipkins said the MP’s latest actions “raise perceptions of influence which cannot stand.”

The problem for the Prime Minister is that the sacking does not erase those perceptions of influence, and it is unclear how many other instances of similar behaviour there may have been in the five years Nash had been a Minister.

It is highly likely that some sort of wider investigation will need to be conducted to ensure that there have not been any other situations where confidential Cabinet information has been leaked and used for personal gain.

There is also a big question mark over whether the Labour caucus can still trust Nash, though when Newsroom asked Revenue Minister David Parker whether all trust had gone out of the window, he denied that saying, “I think there is a sadness that Stuart has made that mistake and suffering the consequences.”

Parker believed that Nash could stay on as an MP and regain the trust of his caucus, although he dodged questions about whether it was better for his errant colleague to hold on for the sake of avoiding an expensive byelection in his seat.

Nash made no public appearance on Tuesday night, with Hipkins saying that he had gone home and had people supporting him.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins must now determine the extent of the damage (RNZ Photo Katie Scotcher)

No by-election in Napier

But RNZ reports that he texted a reporter that there would be no byelection in Napier.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon is happy for the taxpayer to pick up the roughly $1.2 million it costs for a by-election. However, if Nash remains an MP until April 15, such a contest can be avoided as it would fall within the six-month window before the general election.

Luxon said that Nash’s behaviour meant that he needed to be gone immediately, and National would contest any byelection, something that ACT Leader David Seymour said was a complete waste of money at a time when people were struggling in a cost-of-living crisis.

Given that a by-election within six months of a general election requires support from 75% in Parliament, a contest in Napier may be inevitable if National insists on it.

Hipkins has not ruled out the Labour Party making decisions in the coming days about Nash’s fate. There could yet be moves to say that he is not welcome in the caucus, but given that Nash is almost certainly going to decide that he will not contest the Napier seat at the election, that should be enough to keep the Party happy and avoid any formal suspension and a by-election.

The next steps

The Prime Minister said Nash had well and truly crossed the line that would have allowed him to remain a Minister but would not be drawn on whether he would tolerate having him in the caucus. He said that he had not had the time to consider that properly but told Newsroom that he expected the MP would be doing some deep reflecting on his next steps.

Nash tried to resign as a Minister when Hipkins presented the allegations put to him by Stuff, but the Prime Minister was not letting him off that easily, saying that the seriousness of the misconduct meant a dismissal was warranted.

While Hipkins might hope that makes him look stronger in the final moments of Nash’s ministerial career, in reality, he missed his chance to be swift and decisive ten days ago.

Jo Moir is Political Editor at Newsroom based in Wellington. The above article has been published under a Special Agreement.

Radio New Zealand writes:

The Prime Minister has sacked Stuart Nash from all of his ministerial portfolios, following another breach of the Cabinet Manual.

Nash was already on his final warning, having lost the Police portfolio two weeks ago for two missteps, including criticising the judiciary.

On Tuesday evening it emerged that Nash sent an email to senior business figures in 2020 while he was Small Business Minister, which contained Cabinet discussions related to a commercial relief package being negotiated at the time.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said that in the email, Nash expressed “both his opposition to the decision that Cabinet had reached and the position that other Cabinet members took.”

Unacceptable behaviour

The email was sent to two of Nash’s donors, which Hipkins said as commercial property owners, had “an interest in the Cabinet decision.”

“That crosses a line that is totally unacceptable to me.”

The Cabinet Manual states that discussions at Cabinet and Cabinet committee meetings are informal and confidential.

“This is a clear breach of collective responsibility and Cabinet confidentiality. Stuart Nash has fundamentally breached my trust and the trust of his Cabinet colleagues and his conduct is inexcusable,” Hipkins said.

He said that even if Nash was not already on a final warning, this latest revelation would have triggered his dismissal.

Hipkins revealed that two persons Nash had emailed – Troy Bowker and Greg Loveridge – were donors but said neither of them had done anything wrong.

The issue, he said, was the perception of influence, and as both men were involved in the property industry, they had an interest in the Cabinet decision.

“Disclosing those conversations in the first place was inappropriate. The fact that they were disclosed to people who donated to his campaigns, I think adds to the perceptions of a conflict but also is just utterly unacceptable,” he said.

Hipkins, who admitted he was “gutted,” said that the decision was “a black-and-white issue.”

“Sacking people is not easy. In this particular case, I did not feel there was any other option though. This is absolutely inexcusable,” he said.

Hipkins said that he had asked Nash to reflect on his future as an MP.

Nash has been MP for Napier since 2014, and if he leaves after mid-April his departure would not force a by-election.

National for By-Election

National leader Christopher Luxon compared the breach to insider trading. He said that Nash should resign from Parliament immediately and that his Party was ready for a by-election.

“The breach is so serious and so egregious, and such a big contravention of the Cabinet Manual on so many levels, that you cannot trust having Stuart Nash in your caucus as the prime minister,” he said.

ACT Leader David Seymour said that in all instances, Nash was trying to do the right thing, but he repeatedly failed to follow the rules and be honest.

Seymour was not sure if this latest breach was worse than Nash’s phone call to the Police Commissioner over a judicial decision and said that incident should have been enough for the Prime Minister to sack him entirely in the first place.

“He is now paying the price for his earlier indecisiveness, trying to do some dismal calculus over which breach was worse than the other,” he said.

But unlike Luxon, Seymour doubted there was much public appetite for a by-election this close to the general election.

Megan Woods will take over Nash’s economic development role, while David Parker will pick up oceans and fisheries and Meka Whaitiri the Hawke’s Bay cyclone response.

All will be acting Ministers until permanent replacements are found.

–Published under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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