Yesterday was a big day for Steven Joyce, the National Party’s chief political strategist since the mid-2000s, who announced he will retire from Parliament on April 6. This follows new leader Simon Bridges’ decision not to offer him the finance spokesmanship in a shadow Cabinet reshuffle.

“I have had a wonderful time in this place over the last nearly ten years including nine years as a Minister, and have been privileged to be able to make a real contribution to the development of our country,” Joyce said in a statement. He said Bridges had offered him a front bench position.

The announcement came after a tumultuous few days for Joyce. On Friday, he threatened to sue the National Business Review for defamation after it published a damning column on his performance in both the Economic Development and Finance portfolios under Prime Ministers John Key and Bill English.

Written by public relations consultant and some time National Party apparatchik Matthew Hooton, the column was “replete with erroneous assertions of fact and defamatory imputations, including that Mr Joyce has engaged, or is likely to engage, in illegal, unethical and corrupt behaviour,” says a March 2 letter sent to NBR publisher Todd Scott. The letter, obtained by BusinessDesk, was sent by law firm Minter Ellison Rudd Watts on Joyce’s behalf. 

The deadline for NBR to retract the allegedly defamatory statements and publish an apology passed last night.

In comments to media and in Twitter posts, Scott says he decided to fire Hooton as a columnist prior to receiving the threat of defamation action. However he says he only informed Hooton of his decision after receiving the lawyers’ letter on March 2, the day of the column’s publication, and then being contacted by the columnist the following day. Scott is reported as saying NBR will defend any action brought and that the decision to end Hooton’s column was part of a wider cull of NBR contributors to “cut fat” from his business.

Hooton announced on Facebook this afternoon that he will be writing a weekly column for the New Zealand Herald.

Steven Joyce’s letter to NBR disputes the column’s assertion that Joyce received only four votes in the party leadership contest won by Bridges, saying the claim was “simply untrue and deliberately understates the level of support for Mr Joyce in caucus”. In any case, there was “no means by which Mr Hooton could ascertain the level of support for Mr Joyce”, the letter says. 

It says the Hooton column conveyed “a number of imputations” including dishonesty, rudeness, and that he “considers himself superior to his colleagues in the National Party and is despised by them all” and that he was “incompetent and politically inept”.

The letter claims NBR’s decision to offer Joyce a right of reply prior to the column’s publication “suggested a misguided belief that a response from Mr Joyce could in these circumstances provide an antidote to the defamatory statements made in the article(s). The courts have long rejected this contention by publishers.”

Newshub has reported Scott as saying NBR would be neither retracting nor apologising for the column, and would subpoena senior National Party MPs if the issue went to court.

Joyce’s retirement from Parliament clears the way for Nicola Willis, a former Beehive adviser to John Key, to join the Opposition ranks. Willis, who left a senior position at Fonterra, was ranked 48th on the National Party list and relocated to campaign in the seat of Wellington Central. She was two seats away from getting into Parliament on the final election result. However, the resignation of Bill English this month allows 47th-ranked Maureen Pugh to take up her seat, while Joyce’s resignation clears the way for Willis.


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