There was nowhere for Bill English to hide in the Parliamentary debating chamber today as his character and the National Party's protection of Todd Barclay were repeatedly challenged, Bernard Hickey reports.
Not even the Clutha-Southland MP's decision to step down less than an hour earlier, or Simon Bridges' attempts to use speaker's rulings to shield him from awkward questions, could protect the Prime Minister from accusations of misleading the public and covering up evidence of a crime.
Slumped in his seat for much of question time, a grey-faced English tried to defend his actions and lack of actions, but ended up being pummelled over why, despite knowing of Barclay's illicit recordings, he tolerated his re-selection and a payout to keep it quiet. Bridges's attempts to stifle questions from all three Opposition leaders simply delayed the inevitable and made English look even weaker and more diminished.
Labour Leader Andrew Little began by zeroing in on English's comments on Radio New Zealand on March 1 last year when the then Finance Minister said he was not aware of any specific problems between Barclay and his staff. We now know that at the time English knew about Barclay's illicit recording of his electorate agent Glenys Dickson and had texted electorate chair Stuart Davie days earlier about it, saying: "Everyone unhappy."
Little asked if it was an acceptable moral standard for the Finance Minister to mislead the public.
Bridges, as the leader of the house, tried twice to prevent English from having to answer the question on the grounds it related to a member of the caucus, rather than English's role as a minister. Ministers only have to answer questions relating to their responsibilities, rather than caucus colleagues. But Speaker David Carter over-ruled Bridges twice and forced English to answer.
His answers were unconvincing and jeered by the Opposition.
"At the time the matter was under investigation and, in fact, the facts of it had not been established," English said.
"Some of them were covered by a confidential employment settlement to which I was not a party and they were under investigation by the police, and at the time I was not sure what I could or could not say about that," he said.
Little then sought to expose English's comments to then Prime Minister John Key about Barclay, which Key mentioned in a Radio New Zealand interview on March 6. Had English told Key about Barclay secretly recording his staff?
Bridges then tried in vain again to shield the Prime Minister. Eventually, the 'I can't recall' phrase cropped up in response, much to the derision of Opposition MPs.
"I am sure I would have talked to the former Prime Minister about matters that were relevant to the management of the caucus, but I cannot recall either the discussion or the content of it," English said.
Little went on to suggest English might have not have disclosed the recording to Key, effectively covering up the evidence from his own Prime Minister.
Finally, English went on the counter-attack.
"Allegations of a cover-up are ridiculous. The statements made to me regarding this were reported to the relevant party official—that is on the record—and then to the police. It is a weird world when the Labour Party says that reporting a matter to the police is a cover-up," he said.
The trouble for English is that in the 16 months after hearing directly from Barclay about the secret recordings he did nothing to make Barclay talk to the police and sat by as Barclay was re-selected in a bitterly contested process that tore his own National party apart in his home electorate. Barclay's decision on Wednesday not to stand again has not changed those facts, or that English initially said he could not recall the now famous face-to-face conversation with Barclay - even though he gave a police statement on it in Dipton in April last year.
Little then compiled his challenge into a final supplementary question.
"Why should New Zealanders place any trust in him as Prime Minister, given he has told media things that are untrue about his contact with Glenys Dickson, told media things that are untrue about his knowledge of Todd Barclay's actions, and consistently failed the moral standards that New Zealanders expect of their elected leaders?"
English's response was hollow, given his knowledge of Barclay's illicit recording and the subsequent redaction of English's Police statement from documents obtained under the Official Information Act.
"I simply disagree. The confidentiality of the original discussions had to be respected. It would be a breach of the law to breach those. Then it was a matter that was subject to police investigation, and I participated in that investigation," he said.
Winston calls for English to resign
But the inquisition was not over for English as potential coalition partner Winston Peters attacked the Prime Minister personally and called for his resignation. The New Zealand First Leader also suggested in Parliament that English himself may have commited a crime.
"Is it not a fact that he deliberately did not tell the truth when first questioned yesterday because he himself was deeply complicit in trying to avoid legal action, with taxpayers' hush money, and he knew full well that a confidential agreement or contract to cover up a crime is an illegal contract?" Peters asked.
English replied that he was not a party to the settlement and "did not know what the dispute was or how it was settled."
Again, the problem for English is that his text message to Stuart Davie suggested he was at least aware of the dispute and that the settlement had been topped up from the National leaders' fund.
English told Davie in the text the "settlement was larger than normal because of the privacy breach” and had to be “part paid from the Prime Minister’s budget to avoid potential legal action."
Peters took an unusual step with his next question, given he may have to negotiate the formation of a Government with English in just over three months.
"When it is clear to every independent commentator that this Prime Minister is complicit in a cover-up, why does he not resign?" Peters said.
English rejected Peters' assertions.
"The fact that he wants to keep on saying it does not make it true. My statement to the police stated what I knew of the circumstances, and I would have thought that making the statement to the police was not a cover-up."
The public will now make up its own mind about whether English did enough by telling the Police and no more. It will also find out more about whether National party officials obstructed justice by trying to stop Glenys Dickson from lodging a complaint with the Police.
That was the subject of Green Co-Leader James Shaw's questions to Police Minister Paula Bennett. She replied that the police were statutorily independent and she was not involved in police decisions about whether to issue search warrants or pursue an investigation.
The inquisition for English and National is far from over.