Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Editorial: Politics for risk-takers not saints

Yesterday in this column we praised David Parker as a new Transport Minister who had already gone a tentative step further than any previous incumbent towards a politically courageous solution to urban traffic congestion. Today he is gone, lost to the Labour Cabinet, lost to the country. He was the Government's brightest newcomer, an "exceptionally able" person, the Prime Minister said, one of precious few ministers with business experience.

He has been forced from office by a revelation that when in business he wrongly answered a routine question on a Companies Office form. He had indicated that a decision not to appoint an auditor for the accounts of a collapsed company had been duly made by the shareholders unanimously. Now one of the three shareholders says he was never consulted about the decision, and the return was therefore false. How serious is this really?

It is too easy to take the political line that in public life everything is serious. The slightest infraction can be intolerable if we decide so. But in that case we need to be clear of the consequences for the calibre of people we can attract into politics.

Mr Parker admitted he "cut a corner" and immediately resigned from the position of Attorney-General, a post incompatible with the cutting of legal corners. Inevitably that pound of flesh was not sufficient for the Shylocks. They demanded nothing less than that Mr Parker be stripped of all his portfolios and, with the Opposition sharpening their knives, the Prime Minister accepted his complete resignation yesterday.

There is no doubt she gave him little choice. Early in the morning he was telling radio stations he saw no reason to give up his transport and energy portfolios and would "tough out" the afternoon in Parliament. But he was gone by lunchtime. Just before 11am, Helen Clark said she had accepted Mr Parker's resignation from all his portfolios. She said she would have insisted on his resignation if he had not offered it.

How many people, observing this sort of thing, shudder and quell any thoughts they have of offering themselves for election. David Parker has done no more than many people have probably done when filling out the various requirements of commercial life. They may not have cut the same corner he did but they probably cannot in confidence say they have never filled out a form with less than scrupulous care. They probably do not even know what seemingly trivial corners they have cut.

In politics it takes strong leadership to keep a sense of perspective. Through most of her premiership Helen Clark has been too ready to cast ministers to the wolves, often before any offence was established. She was beginning to display more strength, perhaps unwisely, in her refusal to sack David Benson-Pope over a misleading statement to Parliament. Mr Parker appears to have paid the price for the pressure she has felt from the Benson-Pope business and the prima facie case of election mis-spending, which the police have decided not to prosecute.

The Prime Minister has made the the wrong decision in both the Benson-Pope and Parker decisions. One minister deserved to go, the other did not. Mr Parker's resignation as Attorney-General was the suitable and sufficient penalty for his misdemeanour. As a young and "exceptionally able" person, the Government could not afford to lose him. Probity in public life is important but we need to recognise it sometimes in people who make a forgiveable slip. People who have never put a foot wrong are probably people who have never taken a risk. We will all be poorer if politics becomes safe only for saints.

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