Thursday, April 27, 2006

John Armstrong: Government relief as report clears ex-minister

David Parker will surely go down in history as the first politician to resign for something he did not do.

Yesterday's report covering the month-long investigation by the Companies Office draws the reader to one inescapable conclusion: The former Cabinet minister effectively pleaded guilty to the prime allegation made against him by Investigate magazine when the evidence overwhelmingly points to his innocence.

That has left Mr Parker in the uncomfortable position of trying to explain why he confessed to making a mistake with respect to the filing of company returns when he had not.

He has himself to blame, for he has been the victim of his own sloppiness.

The 14-page report is a tale of missing documents, memory blanks and poor record-keeping on his part, all of which contributed to him being unsure whether he had erred or not when confronted with the allegations.

However, Mr Parker's discomfort was minuscule yesterday compared to the huge sense of relief evident in both his and the Prime Minister's reaction to the report's exoneration of him.

Coming in the wake of the police investigations into David Benson-Pope and Labour's election spending, the Government's big fear was that authorities would again find there was a prima facie case and then decide not to prosecute.

However, the crown solicitors advising the Registrar of Companies found the essential allegation made against Mr Parker could not be proved "even to a prima facie level".

Whether it was deliberate or not, the Government will be especially grateful for that wording.

Mr Parker's return to the Cabinet is now a formality next Tuesday when the Labour caucus will rubber-stamp the Prime Minister's recommendation that he return after six weeks in the wilderness.

There is nothing now to disbar his reinstatement in three of the four portfolios he previously held - energy, climate change and transport.

Whether he should resume his other former responsibility as Attorney-General is more tricky. It seems likely the Prime Minister will err on the side of caution and not give him that job back.

The investigation found infringements covering the late filing of returns and lodging of company records, which were deemed to be so minor that the crown solicitors did not believe they warranted prosecution as it likely would have resulted in discharges without conviction.

Some of these infringements are also the equivalent of minor traffic offences.

It might be setting an impossibly high standard of behaviour for future Attorneys-General if Mr Parker was ruled out of the job because of such minor misdemeanours.

However, Labour wants to retain the moral high ground that the Prime Minister managed to rescue by dealing firmly with Mr Parker when faced with the Investigate allegations last month following the leniency she extended to David Benson-Pope.

That requires keeping everything squeaky clean and not leaving an opening for the Opposition.

In hindsight, Mr Parker's dumping from the Cabinet instead of being merely temporarily stood down until investigations were completed may now look to have been over the top.

But it must be remembered that the MP was under a cloud and possibly facing a prosecution which, on conviction, would have required his leaving Parliament.

Mr Parker also got the shove because an example had to be made of the next minister who appeared to have blotted his copybook.

That may have been unfair on Mr Parker. But the Prime Minister simply did not have the luxury of treating his case in isolation.

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