The warning that ended National MP Nick Smith’s career

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Jo Moir

Jo Moir

Wellington, June 4, 2021

                                  

                                          Nick Smith quit after 30 years as Member of Parliament (Newsroom Photo by Lynn Grieveson)

It has been a tumultuous week of high-profile resignations and scandal for the National Party, prompting leader Judith Collins to run for the hills.

Father of the House Nick Smith’s 30 years in Parliament has been anything but dull.

Not even his resignation on Monday (May 31, 2021) came without drama, from claims that he had been gaslit by his own Leader, to the questionable legality of a secret recording.

Collins fighting fire

Collins is fighting fires after Politik reported on Wednesday (June 3, 2021) that it was she who warned Smith a story was about to be published that would reveal details of an inquiry into an altercation he had with a staffer. But that story has never arrived, leaving speculation rife that Collins all but pushed Smith to resign.

The two staffers tied up in the inquiry are now both out of jobs with the National Party.

Smith has confirmed that he got warned on Friday (May 28, 2021) but has gone to ground refusing to do interviews this week or disclose who alerted him.

Resignation advanced

In his resignation press release, he said that he did not believe that it was appropriate for an employment dispute to be litigated in public. While he was planning to retire during this Parliamentary term after losing his Nelson seat at the election, news of the inquiry leak brought that forward.

Collins denies that she told Smith to leave while at the same time insisting she warns her MPs when she thinks a media storm is coming their way.

It is a small group of people who knew about the Parliamentary Service inquiry being conducted by an independent QC and even fewer who knew the draft report had been completed.

 
Leader Judith Collins dodged interviews with the press gallery (Newsroom Photo by Lynn Grieveson)

The altercation and after

In mid-July last year, Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye’s leadership had just come to an end, following a brutal rolling of Simon Bridges and Paula Bennett. Muller had quit as National Party Leader on July 14; later that day, Collins and Gerry Brownlee took over.

Two days later, senior MPs Nikki Kaye and Amy Adams announced they were quitting the party and just four days later backbench MP, Andrew Falloon, was forced to quit the party after sending unsolicited sexual images to young women.

Somewhere around the time of Kaye and Adams’ resignation, Smith lost his temper and had a yelling match with his young male staffer, which included swearing at him.

Another National Party staffer, who did not work in Smith’s office, recorded the verbal altercation and reported the incident to Parliamentary Service (the employer of the National Party staffers).

Newsroom understands that Smith and his staffer resolved the issue and both apologised for their part in the argument.

The staffer was moved out of Smith’s office though and subsequently lost their job at the election when National’s devastating result cut the party’s resources. 

Meanwhile, Parliamentary Service launched an investigation into the recording of the altercation and the altercation itself.

This happened around the same time Collins was dealing with the fallout from Falloon’s behaviour and in the run-up to the election, which at that stage was still set to be on September 19.

 

Former National MP Andrew Falloon left National under a cloud last year (Newsroom Photo by Lynn Grieveson)

As is normal practice, Parliamentary Service briefed National’s then-chief of staff, Megan Campbell, and chief whip, Barbara Kuriger about the employment dispute.

While Collins was not briefed by Parliamentary Service it would be highly unusual for Campbell to not have passed the information on, especially so close to an election.

Collins says she found out about the investigation “late last year.’’

The investigation

Almost a year since the altercation and the investigation is still ongoing.

Newsroom understands that a draft report by the QC has been provided to Smith, the staffer who made the recording and potentially the staffer involved in the altercation.

No staff within Parliamentary Service have received a copy of the draft report, ruling them out of the so-called leak Collins has described.

It is possible that Collins knew the draft report was completed and could potentially leak to media if either of the staffers involved had passed on that information to Collins directly, or through her office.

It is also possible that Smith told Collins the report had been shared with him and the complainant. Collins’ office would not have been privy to the draft report otherwise.

The only other member of the National Party who knew about the investigation was now-Chief Whip Matt Doocey, who replaced Kuriger in the role late last year.

As part of Kuriger’s handover she briefed Doocey about the investigation.

No other MPs were alerted – not even Collins’ deputy leader Shane Reti, who found out about the investigation through media reports.

Neither the staffer who made the recording, nor the one involved in the altercation, have been working for the National Party since the election.

Despite apologies being made and both Smith and his staffer moving on from what happened last July, the election triggered the event clause meaning that the staffer is now out of a job.

It is understood that Smith had asked that everything be done to keep the staffer at Parliament.

 
National’s Chief Whip Matt Doocey was told about Nick Smith’s troubles (Newsroom Photo by Lynn Grieveson)

 

In the meantime, Smith has not shown up in Wellington all week and Newsroom has been told that he has been “struggling” and “not in a great space’’ over how his three decades in Parliament has ended.

It is still unclear whether he will return to Parliament to do a valedictory speech.

His last day as an MP is June 10.

Finding Collins

After fronting her regular media slots on Wednesday morning, Collins went to ground for almost two days on a mission to avoid the press gallery, with the exception of one outlet.

Despite being in Parliament and the House on Wednesday (June 3, 2021), she refused to do a press conference to answer questions about what she knew, and when, about Smith’s investigation.

Collins, along with the Prime Minister, doesn’t attend Parliament on Thursdays – but her staff refused to answer repeated questions from the press gallery as to where she would be or if she would be available for interviews.

Eventually Newsroom and RNZ discovered Collins was in Tauranga with local MP and former leader Todd Muller.

An RNZ reporter who was in nearby Whakatane was dispatched to track down Collins at a Kiwifruit packhouse.

After first being sent to the wrong packhouse, the reporter made it across town to Te Puna in time to join a tour with Collins and secure an interview.

Collins was asked whether she spoke to Smith on Friday (May 28, 2021) to warn him that media were about to publish details of the investigation.

She said that she does not discuss details of conversations with her MPs, but “Nick Smith is absolutely clear that at no stage was he ever told to leave Parliament.”

Collins did not directly answer a question about who – if not her – had told Smith about the leak, but made it clear she does warn her MPs of any problems coming their way.

“I think that it is really important that I do not go down the path of trying to work out who has done what, where and how, but I am very clear, if I ever hear of any media interest in any of our MPs, I will always let them know, and I think that is the right thing to do. It would be unheard of for a Leader not to tell an MP,’’ she said.

Collins spoke to Smith on the phone on Thursday (June 3, 2021) and shared that “he is feeling really quite good now and that we are looking forward to seeing him hopefully back next week.” She confirmed that Smith had the draft report, but she had never seen it herself, nor had she asked to.

Collins, a lawyer, thinks the recording of Smith is “probably illegal.”

While she does not personally know the staffer who made the recording, she was notified on Thursday (June 3, 2021) that they are no longer working for the National Party or Parliamentary Service.

Collins rejected the suggestion that she had been avoiding the media saying, “There is no point in me talking about something where Nick has already made a decision. I am not avoiding the media; I am just doing my job,’’ she said.

The backstory

MPs and staff, both former and current, spoken to by Newsroom say that Smith has a history of treating staff poorly, and it was well-known around Parliament.

One former senior MP described Smith as having a “volatile personality’’ and was often “outright rude to officials and staffers.”

The former MP said that Smith had entered politics at a very young age and had “never managed anyone and did not know how to deal with people.”

Newsroom asked whether the National Party President or Board were made aware of the investigation or knew of any other previous complaints.

A spokesperson for the Party said: “We were not advised of the investigation, and no formal complaints were raised with us about behavioural issues. The issue was, and remains, a private employment matter between Nick Smith and Parliamentary Service.’’

The spokesperson said that it would be “inappropriate to comment further.”

Health and Safety Review

The National Party underwent a health and safety review last year after allegations of bullying and harassment.

Some of the findings of the review were published last May, along with a new code of conduct setting out behavioural expectations of MPs.

That included a complaints procedure for alleged breaches, responses to complaints, the investigation processes, appeals, and the disciplinary actions available.

The Party also agreed to have a pro-active weekly discussion between the senior parliamentary and volunteer wings to raise and address any relevant issues, complaints or incidents.

The National Party did not respond to Newsroom’s questions about whether Smith’s actions had breached the Code of Conduct.

Former National MPs and staffers were not surprised by Nick Smith’s altercation (Newsroom Photo by Lynn Grieveson)

Parliament Code of Conduct

A new Parliament code of conduct – in response to the Debbie Francis review identifying widespread bullying and harassment – was also signed by all MPs and became effective at the election.

Smith’s altercation however pre-dates this.

Questions have been raised about how much a party knows about Parliamentary Service investigations and whether there should be greater accountability.

Currently the MP being investigated has to give a privacy waiver for the Leader’s office and chief whip to be informed, which in this case Smith did.

To ensure transparency, the Labour Party has taken the step of getting all its MPs to sign a privacy waiver saying that any information in relation to an employment dispute can be automatically passed on to the Labour Leader’s office and Chief Whip.

The Jake Bezzant scandal

At the same time, National Party MPs were dealing with the surprise resignation of Smith, it came to light that a candidate who ran for the party at last year’s election had become embroiled in an entirely separate scandal.

Jake Bezzant ran unsuccessfully in the Upper Harbour electorate, made vacant by the retirement of Paula Bennett, at the October election.

During the campaign, Business Desk broke a story that Bezzant had left his job at Parking Sense in the United States after disagreements over “fantasy multi-million-dollar contracts’’ along with disputed claims that he had founded the company.

On Wednesday (June 2, 2021) media broke a story revealing a former girlfriend of Bezzant’s had gone public on a podcast, accusing him of impersonating her online without her consent to solicit sexual images from other social media users.

Asked whether the National Party Board and President had failed the wider Party by not properly vetting Bezzant, a spokesperson said that it is clear from a campaign review that vetting, and background checks of prospective candidates needed improving.

A former senior MP told Newsroom that the Party’s Candidates’ College was set up almost 20 years ago as “an opportunity to get insight into political life.’

“Since about 2008, when the Party decided that it was invincible, the purpose of the College has fallen away. No one on the board seems to be aware of the rationale for the Candidates’ College. The President and Board have failed the broader party and the whole system has broken down,” he said.

The former MP told Newsroom that the Party no longer had any mechanisms operating that would vet the likes of Falloon and Bezzant.

A National Party Spokesperson responded saying that “it is clear from the results and recommendations of our campaign review that rebuilding and strengthening our Candidates’ College remains a priority for us.”

“We owe it to our members, and our country, to ensure that the processes we have in place deliver the highest quality candidates for selection in our party 100% of the time, and ultimately the highest quality candidates for Parliament.

Vetting process inadequate

“We are working hard to improve the entrance process for Candidates’ College and the vetting for candidates for 2023,’’ the spokesperson said.

A former candidate told Newsroom they were surprised the vetting process was not more comprehensive.

“I had to provide referees and hand over links to social media accounts. I also got asked if there was anything that might come up that would damage the party. But I did feel it wasn’t as comprehensive as I thought it might be,’’ he said.

Bezzant is no longer a National Party member.

But how he came to be a candidate and selected for what was considered a relatively safe seat will dominate the board’s efforts to rebuild the Candidates’ College and vetting processes.

Jo Moir is Political Editor at Newsroom based in Wellington. The above story has been published under a Special Arrangement.

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