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Broad inquiry into allegations needed

 

Prime Minister John Key should accept the lesson of recent New Zealand history: a limited inquiry into the allegations which have unfolded since Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics was published will not suffice.

Mr Key is due shortly to announce the terms of reference for an inquiry into allegations that former Justice Minister Judith Collins was involved in a campaign against former Serious Fraud Office chief executive, Adam Feeley.

However, it is already plain that the narrow investigation envisaged by the prime minister will be insufficient to address the serious allegations raised in the past three weeks.

Mr Key should recognise that now and announce a broad-based inquiry into all of the allegations which have come to light since Dirty Politics was released. If he does not do that, the ongoing release of emails and other information will overtake his limited inquiry.

The position was similar in the mid-1990s following the release by Winston Peters of papers relating to tax deals conducted through the Cook Islands. The papers relating to the transactions were tabled in Parliament on March 16, 1994.

Media reports, widespread public concern and serious, unanswered questions led to the announcement of a select committee inquiry into the so-called Winebox deals. However, as events continued to unfold, it rapidly became clear that the inquiry would not have sufficient scope to address and resolve the issues raised.

The Government accordingly announced the establishment of a full Commission of Inquiry, headed by former Chief Justice Sir Ronald Davison.

On the first day of the hearings, Sir Ronald advised that a large part of the inquiry would be held behind closed doors. However, huge media headlines reporting that the inquiry would be conducted in secret, saw that decision reversed almost immediately.

The position is the same in 2014. Nothing less than an independent, public inquiry will suffice to address the questions raised in the past three weeks.  Hager’s book and the emails released by the Whaledump hacker raise questions which go to the very heart of the functioning of our democracy.

As such, we should not expect that these issues can be put to bed quickly. The Winebox Inquiry took three years, involved more than 20 sets of court proceedings and produced a report of 1200 pages. That is simply the price we should accept needs to be paid to protect our democracy and ensure that our system of government functions effectively.

Labour’s Shadow Attorney-General, David Parker, said yesterday that his party was drafting the terms of reference for a Commission of Inquiry.  Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei and former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer are calling for a Royal Commission.

As the general election is now less than three weeks away, Mr Key should consult with Labour as to the appropriate form and terms of reference for an inquiry. The convention is that governments do not make major decisions in the three months prior to an election. It would therefore be inappropriate for National to act on a unilateral basis to establish a broad inquiry.

A new law governing inquiries into matters of public importance came into force almost exactly a year ago. The Inquiries Act 2013 aims to provide more flexibility for inquiries and to write into law the lessons learned from the inquiries into Pike River and into the collapse of buildings during the February 22, 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

The act provides for three types of inquiries –

  • Royal Commissions established under the authority of Letters Patent
  • Public inquiries set up by the Governor-General by Order in Council, and
  • Government inquiries initiated by ministers.

The prime minister should consult with the Labour leader and set up a wide-ranging inquiry under the new law.

 

*Catriona MacLennan is a former political reporter and also covered the Winebox Commission of Inquiry into certain matters relating to taxation.



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