The sacking of Stuart Nash was inevitable, following the revelations over the last couple of weeks about various actions he had taken as a Minister that were in breach of the provisions of the Cabinet Manual. After this week’s news of an email sent to funders detailing Cabinet discussions, Nash reportedly offered Hipkins his resignation from the Cabinet. But Hipkins was determined to appear strong and decisive, so decided instead to proactively dismiss Nash, rather than just accept his offer of resignation.
But, in reality, Hipkins’ decision looked far less that of a Prime Minister in control, and much more a “mea culpa” for not having dismissed Nash when allegations first arose against him a couple of weeks ago. Then, Hipkins gave Nash at least two final warnings about his behaviour, and Nash, for his part, assured Hipkins there were no more skeletons in his closet. Hipkins was too willing to ignore the patterns of Nash’s behaviour and seemed oblivious to the prospect of more incidents coming to light, to the embarrassment of Nash and the government.
While Hipkins’ decision this week may have got rid of Nash, it has not got rid of the problem. Investigations are already underway into what other inappropriate actions Nash may have taken as a Minister over the last five years. At the same time, and more worryingly for the Prime Minister, investigations have also begun into the role of the Prime Minister’s Office and what officials there knew about what Nash was up to, and why they chose not to inform both the Prime Minister and his predecessor about what they knew.
The net effect is that the Prime Minister has lost control of the Nash issue. Hipkins does not know what other inappropriate actions by Nash the current investigations may find, or how damaging they may be. And because of the involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office during his predecessor’s time, he now faces accusations of a cover-up by his officials over the matter. In the meantime, the Nash issue looks likely to rumble on for some time to come, disrupting Hipkins’ momentum as it does so. Had Hipkins acted more decisively earlier, and dismissed Nash then, instead of just issuing a series of final warnings, it is likely the matter would have blown over by now. However, now, his initial indecision could up by derailing his government altogether.
One thing the Nash saga this week has done is deflect attention from another errant Minister, the Greens’ Marama Davidson. Her inflammatory comments at the weekend about who perpetrates sexual violence earned a Prime Ministerial rebuke of sorts, but that was as far as it went. Davidson has subsequently refused to either withdraw or apologise to the wider public for her comments, appearing instead to double-down on them when challenged.
As with Nash, Davidson’s responses this week suggest it is very likely she has not learned from the incident, and there is no consequent guarantee she will not make similar outbursts in the future, to the frustration of the Prime Minister. At the very least, Hipkins should have stood Davidson down from her role as Minister for Family Violence Prevention, and he should have had an urgent discussion with her co-leader about whether she should be replaced as a Minister altogether. By not acting decisively, Hipkins looks as though he is hoping the Nash affair will let Davidson’s transgressions slide by almost unnoticed.
What is surprising is that Hipkins has not learned from the early stages of the Nash affair and seems set to repeat the same mistakes all over again. As he did with Nash, the Prime Minister is just keeping his fingers crossed Davidson will not transgress again. All of which leaves him looking weak and no longer in control of the government’s narrative.
In just a week, Hipkins’ positive, cheery approach and the confidence it was inspiring, has taken a mighty hit. He no longer looks like a Prime Minister in firm and decisive control of his government and its agenda. His indecision and timidity have left him looking distracted, to the detriment of the government’s agenda.
Time is marching on. There are just over seven months to the election. The last thing the Prime Minister needs is to be distracted from the big tasks requiring his attention in that time, by having to put out persistent fires in his own ranks. Yet his initial failures to act decisively in the Nash case, and now potentially the Davidson situation as well, have left him exactly in that situation. Against the backdrop of likely more embarrassing revelations about Nash, and more divisive and explosive comments from Davidson (not to mention any other Ministers yet to go rogue!) the Prime Minister now faces an almighty challenge in trying to recapture the control of the political agenda he and his government were enjoying barely a week ago.
Peter Dunne, a retired Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister, who represented Labour and United Future for over 30 years, blogs here: honpfd.blogspot.com