18 Mar 2023

Making a Nash of it: The self-destruct sequence of a police minister

From Focus on Politics, 10:00 am on 18 March 2023
Collage of Chris Hipkins and Stuart Nash in front of burning grass.

Photo: RNZ

"I completely stuffed up" - Stuart Nash

Stuart Nash's rapid resignation from his treasured police portfolio - just two months after getting it back -  is one of the clearest examples of a political own-goal. 

It's highlighted poor ministerial judgement - as well as wider problems Labour has in the law-and-order space. 

It was a dream start to the week for Labour on Monday, with a positive poll and a policy purge which seized the political agenda. By midweek, however, attention had firmly shifted to the sudden removal of Stuart Nash as police minister - with no one to blame but himself. 

Nash had messaged Newstalk ZB host Mike Hosking on Tuesday night with a request to talk gangs. He began their on-air chat the next day touting police statistics, but soon shifted to his general frustration with the judiciary over what he perceived as light sentences.

"There's been a couple of times when police have put these guys in front of judges," he said. "And actually, one I phoned up the police commissioner and said 'surely you're going to appeal this'.

"This bloke didn't have a licence, had illegal firearms, illegal ammunition and had guns without a licence - and got home detention. I think that was a terrible decision by the judge. Judges need to read the room on this."

Neither Nash nor Hosking seemed to think much of it and soon moved on to other things, but it was a spit-take moment for ACT leader David Seymour who was starting the day with a bowl of cornflakes. 

The Cabinet Manual is clear: ministers must not criticise decisions of the court - not publicly, and especially not to the Police Commissioner who by law must remain independent when it comes to prosecutions. 

Seymour was soon striding the press gallery corridors, and by the time Nash's event on Parliament's precinct - awarding space scholarships to five Kiwi students - finished, he was met by a pack of reporters. 

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His comments to them only made things worse.

"I wasn't the minister of police at the time. I'm not interfering in any way, shape or form ... I was chewing the fat with a guy who was a mate about a decision that I thought was very bad," he said. 

And he wasn't backing down about the court case: "I thought it was a bad decision and I stand by my criticism of that decision."

In a statement, Commissioner Andrew Coster said he remembered the phone call and regarded it as a venting of frustration, nothing more. He said he did not take any action as result - indeed, that would be Crown Law's responsibility - and the case was not appealed.

But the phone call was unacceptable. Nash may not at that time have been minister of police, but was in Cabinet: the rules apply regardless of portfolio. 

With Nash appearing to double down, National's police spokesperson Mark Mitchell - who earlier thought an apology might have sufficed - told reporters Nash's position was now untenable.

It seemed Nash, upon reflection, had come to the same conclusion. As MPs headed to the debating chamber ahead of Question Time, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins appeared, reading a statement. 

Nash had resigned from the police portfolio. Had he not done so he would have been sacked, Hipkins said. 

The man himself went to ground for the rest of the day but on Thursday morning he was up in the air, flying to Gisborne for a cyclone recovery announcement with the PM before a visit to cyclone-hit Wairoa in his electorate. 

RNZ's reporter Ashleigh McCaull - also on the plane - managed to question the now-former police minister upon landing. 

"Absolutely, I completely stuffed up," he said. "If I make the same mistake again, the prime minister will have to take further action - but we learn from our errors."

But it seemed Nash had made similar errors before he had not learned from. Later that afternoon, media were reporting on a previous appearance on Newstalk ZB with Hosking when Nash called for a harsh sentence for the man who killed Constable Matthew Hunt.

The case at that time had still been before the courts, and a complaint was made to Solicitor-General Una Jagose,  who oversees all criminal prosecutions, asking that he be charged with contempt. She did not, instead asking Attorney-General David Parker to issue him a formal reprimand. 

Surely, opposition parties said, Nash could not remain in Cabinet - but Hipkins did not agree, saying this indiscretion was "in the past". 

Then, on Friday, yet another breach. Hipkins again fronted up to reporters saying Nash had raised with him a situation from September 2022

Acting as the MP for Napier, Nash had contacted a senior official at MBIE to ask them to look at an immigration case of a health professional in his electorate which had got stalled in the system - and instead of following accepted protocol had gone directly to the ministry. 

Three strikes, you're out? Apparently not. Nash was demoted to 20th, but retained his roles and seat at the Cabinet table. 

Hipkins explained this was, again, an historical offence and - as with the others - was made in efforts to do his best. 

"It's clear from his pattern of behaviour that Stuart is not acting to achieve personal gain from his actions. The cases in question represent his desire to get things done," he said.

Another ameliorating factor was the case of Judith Collins, who had criticised court decisions "a number of times during her tenure as either minister of justice or as minister of police" and despite a public reprimand from then-prime minister John Key had kept her roles, Hipkins said. 

Along with the demotion, Nash was now on his "final warning". 

He should count himself unbelievably lucky, having shown a clear pattern of recklessness and embarassing his boss: opposition MPs, demanding accountability, were now calling Hipkins weak. 

The prime minister has now expended enormous political capital on Stuart Nash. He better hope it was worth it. 

In this week's Focus on Politics Deputy Political Editor Craig McCulloch recounts the self-inflicted demotion of Stuart Nash. 

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