15 Jun 2016

Bennett refuses to resign over leak

5:08 pm on 15 June 2016

Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett says she has owned up to a leak from her office about the Te Puea Marae chairman, and is rejecting opposition calls for her to resign.

Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett, left, and Te Puea Marae chairman Hurimoana Dennis

Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett, left, and Te Puea Marae chairman Hurimoana Dennis Photo: RNZ

Mrs Bennett has apologised to Hurimoana Dennis after one of her staff members told a journalist he was under police investigation.

But she has dismissed calls for her to resign as "just what the opposition will do".

"I think that we've owned up to a mistake, we've done that as quickly as we can, taken responsibility for it," Mrs Bennett said.

Te Puea Marae, in Auckland's Manurewa, has been in the spotlight recently after it opened its doors to the homeless last month. The government has been under pressure to act as concerns grow over the number of people homeless in New Zealand, and particularly Auckland.

Mrs Bennett said she stood by her initial comments she knew nothing about the leak from her office, saying she "categorically did not know that it had been passed on".

Opposition MPs have accused Mrs Bennett of "having form", as in 2009 she released the benefit payment details of two women who had spoken out against cuts in training allowances.

However, she said this latest incident was a different situation altogether.

"I think my 'track record' has been a bit upfront. They're trying to say that I'm sneaky and do things behind closed doors, and I think if you look back at that, I did that really upfront and people can argue whether I should have or not, but I did.

"So this has been something that has been done by someone else, and not in a manner that I would actually do it."

Mrs Bennett said the actions of her staff member were very disappointing.

"But I can see that it was a genuine mistake in how they've spoken to someone. I just expect it not to be happening and certainly expect it not to be happening again."

She acknowledged the leak was unacceptable, as it happened after a private conversation between her and Mr Dennis, at which the staffer was present.

She rang Mr Dennis to apologise personally, but said the details of that conversation were between the two of them.

"But he did thank me for calling and appreciated that at least I'd picked up the phone and rung him but, yeah, I think I'll leave that there."

Mrs Bennett said she could understand Mr Dennis was disappointed and concerned this whole situation had reflected badly on the marae and the work it was doing with the homeless.

"It was in no ways a reflection on the great work that they've been doing and I thanked him for that many times, and will continue to do so.

"And I can imagine how that looks, but actually that was not the intention at all."

Mrs Bennett said the staff member involved had offered to resign but she had not accepted, "because I don't think she needs to resign".

"She deeply, deeply regrets it and I just can't apologise enough."

There would not be any employment consequences for that staff member, the minister said.

"I've accepted her apology, I've accepted her assurances and from there we're moving on."

She said she was "gutted" this had happened.

"I'd rather we weren't talking about Mr Dennis in this way and I think that's where, what the heart of this is, and I just can't give any assurances other than that."

She said the staffer had returned a call from the journalist, and raised the police investigation at the end of the call, but maintained it was not done to smear either Mr Dennis, or Te Puea Marae.

Minister's resignation not necessary - PM

Prime Minister John Key said Mrs Bennett had taken responsibility and didn't need to resign.

"I have complete confidence in her ... No-one in the government condones the actions of the staff member but I think it's fair to say the minister wasn't aware that her staff member had spoken to another journalist."

Labour leader Andrew Little said he did not accept the minister's assurances that she knew nothing about it.

"Her office knew about it, the minister will have known about it and the idea that a staff member without any sort of signal or tacit signal from the minister would go touting around information about the chair of Te Puea Marae, happened out the blue - I don't accept that at all."

Mr Key said he knew his minister "extremely well".

"And one thing about Paula, she wears her heart on her sleeve, she's very upfront with people, she doesn't lie to people and she certainly wouldn't lie to me", he said.

Mr Key said she had fronted up and apologised, but he said she did not "instruct it to happen".

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