Duncan Garner: Clark sacked Ministers for lying

14/03/2014

John Key won’t like this, but by Helen Clark’s standards he looks weak.

He was lied to by Judith Collins; the best spin you can put on it is that she lied by omission or misled by omission. Take your pick; it’s all semantics.

She went to China as Justice Minister for ‘anti-corruption’ business, but ended up meeting Oravida bosses three times – including that ‘secret’ dinner involving a senior Chinese border official. Wow, I bet all Kiwi exporters struggling in China would love that sort of access and help, wouldn’t they?

Oravida needs access to China. She was clearly helping her husband’s business, while being paid by the taxpayer to be Justice Minister. Yet she failed to declare this to the Prime Minister and in her report to the Cabinet. It’s a sackable offence.

You NEVER mislead the PM. Ever.

It took a late night meeting and some tough questions to get the truth out of her. Actually, sources have told me it took foreign affairs officials to release documents about the trip to the PM for her to finally be upfront. So, with all that in mind, I want to tell you about two scandals I was heavily involved in as a journo – when a Minister lied or misled Helen Clark.

I have never told these stories before - I was one of 3 News' political reporters at the time.

The first involves Lianne Dalziel. She was Immigration Minister involved in a case which saw a young Sri Lankan girl kicked out of the country. She thought the girl’s lawyer was using her as a ‘guinea pig’ to test the system.

Dalziel was frustrated. She got her press secretary at the time, Juli Clausen, to ring me. Juli asked me to meet her and the Minister after the Cabinet meeting finished. From memory, it was 2pm on a Monday.

I met them both in the Beehive basement carpark. Dalziel was nervous about this deal, but determined. Ministers are frightened of leaking at times.

They handed me this ‘letter’ from the girl’s lawyer and told me why it was significant. It had a drawing of a guinea pig on it. Dalziel was adamant it was proof they were using the girl’s case to test the system.

We then set up an interview for later in the day and I went to air with the story. As agreed, I never said where I got the letter from. In the following days other journalists targeted Dalziel asking if she leaked the letter. She denied it.

Grant Robertson, who was working for Helen Clark at the time, was tasked with finding out if she was telling the truth – and he was tasked with looking over all the transcripts from the week. By Friday, Robertson was able to show to Clark that Lianne had lied and, also, misled her as Prime Minister.

Clark sacked her on the spot. It must have been hard too, as she was very close to Clark.

Dalziel took her punishment and later returned to Cabinet.

Then there was David Benson-Pope: An unlikeable man, actually. A bully, a nasty bugger. No one really liked him at Parliament. Not even his own MPs.

He was the guy who stuffed tennis balls in students' mouths when he was a teacher in Dunedin.

Anyway, as Environment Minister he forced a young women out of the Environment Ministry because - wait for it – her husband worked for the National Party.

It involved phone calls from his ministerial office to the head of the Ministry to get her out. I asked him about it – and he laughed it off and denied it. He lied for two weeks.

I remember ploughing on with the story and people like Audrey Young from the NZ Herald and Barry Soper told me – and I’ll never forget this – "Dunkie, you’re on the wrong track here".

Thing is, I had a leak inside the Ministry who was telling me everything – and he was right.

Long story short: Benson-Pope lied to Prime Minister Helen Clark too and, by the Thursday night, 12 days into the story, she had her Chief of Staff Heather Simpson going through ‘transcripts’ to see if Benson-Pope had lied.

He had, of course, and by 11.30am the following morning – at a school opening in South Auckland – Helen Clark called a press conference and sacked him. He was gone.

Benson-Pope was close to Clark, he had been the senior whip, he was a loyalist. So was Lianne Dalziel. It was hard for Clark to sack them, but she did. Both of them lied to her.

You don’t mislead or lie to your boss – especially if they are the Prime Minister.

I still say Key should have gone further than he did. He had every right to sack Collins this week, not just for lying, but for an overt conflict of interest.

Judith Collins remains a target and Key - who I have said some very complimentary things about over the last two years – was weak when it came to the crunch over a senior Minister.

source: data archive

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