Bridges too far?

Did Simon Bridges got to far in seeking cost details on Northland bridges?

Mr Bridges’ office asked the NZ Transport Agency for information on the bridges and estimated costs of upgrading them prior to the byelection announcement that National would upgrade 10 one-way bridges.

Andrew Little thinks he did.

Labour’s leader Andrew Little said that was a clear breach of the rules for ministers’ use of public officials and Mr Bridges should be sacked.

John Key thinks he didn’t.

Mr Key said he did not believe it was a breach.

“My understanding is it’s quite okay to ask for information. You’re quite free to do that. The issue is whether you’ve got policy advice and Mr Bridges didn’t do that.”

The Cabinet Manual seems unclear.

The Cabinet Manual states that “any requests [ministers] make for advice or information from their officials is for the purposes of their portfolio responsibilities and not for party political purposes”.

Bridges would be responsible for fulfilling the bridges bribe so should be basing decisions on advice and information. Many policy decisions can be both part of Governance and for party political purposes – trying to get re-elected.

Anthony Robins at The Standard thinks it’s clear in Burn the Cabinet Manual:

Key won’t take any action over Simon Bridges’ clear breach (excellent work by Rob Salmond at Polity) of the Cabinet Manual. So, might as well burn the thing, at least for the remainder of this government’s term. Key has no intention of being held to account, or holding his ministers to account, by or for anything at all.

Did Helen Clark and Michael Cullen get advice and information before making their famous election rescuing Student Loan bribe? Was any Minister sacked as a result of that? I’m sure there are numerous examples of advice or information from officials being used for election (party political) purposes.

David Farrar at Kiwiblog calls it A beltway beltway issue.

I don’t believe that anything Simon Bridges did, is a breach of the Cabinet Manual. But regardless this is what you call a classic beltway issue. The number of people who get excited over this is miniscule. Mrs Jones in New Plymouth and Mr Smith in Hamilton want jobs, incomes, decent schools, good healthcare etc.

The sort of people who think this is great politics are the same sort who orgasm over who won question time in the House. I know, because I used to be one of them.

Ecch. But he may have a point, no matter how awfully he has put it.

In comments yesterday on Your NZ Alan Wilkinson commented:

This is b.s. If a Government makes a promise before a by-election it has to implement it and therefore it has to cost it responsibly and accurately.

Totally different to before a general election when it may not be reelected. No matter what the Cabinet manual says the Minister was making a promise in his ministerial capacity which he would have to implement and therefore fund.

Just to add the obvious corollary to this, in a by-election if the Cabinet Manual rule were to be applied it would mean the Government’s opponents in the by-election would be free to promise anything they wished and the Government’s candidate would be unable to promise anything new. Farcical nonsense. It shows exactly how incompetent or biased MSM journalism is that this is not pointed out and the opposition’s arguments rubbished.

There might turn out to be some sort of technical breach of the Cabinet Manual but Alan’s comments make sense to me.

Flipper at Kiwiblog:

The closest that anyone has comes to the true worth of “The Cabinet Manual”: is Helen Clark. She amended “it” to suit each circumstance…and to her benefit.

The reality is that the manual is just a collection of “thou shalt nots” (well if it suits the PM), and “:thou shalls”. It has no stranding in law because it is not backed (compiled pursuant to) by a statute. Many matters upon which it offers guidance may well (probably are) covered by Statute. At best the manual is a collection of Executive fiats.

Back to the instigator of the beat-up to far, Rob Salmond at Polity, who responded to Farrar’s post in The “beltway” response:

By “acted in a political way,” of course, he means “breached the rules of his office.” Also, good luck passing off the actual job of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, to hold the government to account for its actions, as “crying wah wah.”

I agree about Mrs Jones and Mr Smith, though. This is not an election defining issue. I’m guessing Labour’s 2017 election campaign won’t have much to do with this issue, in the same way National’s 2008 campaign didn’t say too much about Taito Philip Field.

The thing about so-called “beltway” issues is that they aren;t much good at election time in their own right, but if a number of similar issues emerge around a government then it forms a more general impression which does matter in elections. That was how National used Field. In National’s case, that general impression might be “arrogant” or “liars” or “duplicitous” or “corrupt.” They’re certainly handing out plenty of material…

So Salmond doesn’t seem to think think this is much of a big deal but is trying to chip away at National’s credibility.

Rob would help his own credibility on this if he didn’t try and compare what Simon Bridges did with what Taito Philip Field – Field was charged with “15 counts of bribery and 25 of attempting to pervert the course of justice”.

Field was jailed for six years on corruption charges, with the sentencing judge saying his offending threatened the foundation of democracy and justice.

Likening this to Bridges going too far seeking Ministerial information and advice looks like a beat-up too far.