by Jake Quinn
National Party Minister Phil Heatley’s resignation from Cabinet, probably as a result of a mixture of fear, exhaustion and plain moral decency, has created a concerningly low bar from which to judge Ministers’ future decisions. This will likely create problems for his colleagues Gerry Brownlee and Bill English now and in the future.
Phil Heatley, we are led to believe (and at this point have no reason to doubt), quit Cabinet over his misuse of Ministerial credit cards. He signed for some food and wine which was actually just wine. What’s more, it was for National Party members at a conference – nothing to do with Ministerial business.
Former Press Secretary to Jim Bolger, now media commentator, Richard Griffen, last thursday blamed Heatley’s Senior Private Secretary (SPS) for the mistakes. Griffen claimed that a SPS worth their salt wouldn’t have let the Minister get bogged down with looking after that level of detail.
Perhaps, but how is an SPS to know, let alone control, what their Minister gets up to when at party gatherings, which non-political Ministerial staff are rightly supposed to steer clear of.
The real concern now though is not why (in terms of his thought process or logic) he resigned, but what impact this could have on his colleagues. Many would agree that Heatley’s crime was less severe than English’s. Heatley is, arguably, guilty of incompetence with regards to his ministerial credit cards.
English however, in rearranging his family finances and trusts to claim ministerial allowances he subsequently was forced to pay back, was not so much incompetent but conniving. He deliberately took dubious actions to maximise his own payouts, while calling on the country and the public service to tighten their belts. Heatley, unlike his Deputy leader, cannot be accused of being a hypocrite.
So what happens the next time a Minister, like Brownlee or English, gets into ‘a little bit’ of trouble over an expense here or an expense there? The question will inevitably be asked: will that Minister follow the standards set by their former honourable colleague Mr Heatley?