Peter Dunne has seen plenty of inquiries come and go over controversies around the Cabinet table. He looks at whether the Wally Haumaha inquiry could prove a unwelcome distraction and test of Jacinda Ardern’s resolve.

The Prime Minister says she is “not happy” and “frustrated” with the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Wally Haumaha as Deputy Commissioner of Police. She is refusing to express confidence in him, arguing that it would be wrong to express a view while there is an independent inquiry into the appointment.

The contradictory nature of these two statements show that she still has to learn there are times when it is best for a Prime Minister to remain silent and above the fray at least until all the facts are known. Her desire to be open and transparent is admirable, but wearing one’s heart on a sleeve does not always sit well with a role that requires a Prime Minister to be the sure-footed backstop of government.

Beyond that, the Government seems keen to establish the impression that the Haumaha appointment was primarily the responsibility of the Police and the State Services Commission, which is why the inquiry currently underway focuses on the process adopted by the Commission, including whether it obtained and provided all the relevant information to ministers. But it should not be overlooked that the process was ultimately the responsibility of ministers, who made the final appointment, not the State Services Commission, nor the Police.

In such circumstances, appointments of this seniority come to the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee for confirmation, before reference to the Cabinet for final sign-off. There have been many occasions where proposed appointments have been either deferred pending further information before submission to Cabinet, or rejected altogether. Usually, in such circumstances, concerns raised by ministers relate to what can be described as external issues – reputational perceptions, or performance related – of the type raised in the Haumaha case. And, always at the end of the Cabinet Committee discussion, the relevant papers are gathered in by the Cabinet Office to maintain confidentiality until the appointment is finalised.

In the case of a sensitive appointment, such as a Deputy Commissioner of Police, it would not be out of the question for the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to undertake its own due diligence to ensure that the Prime Minister possesses as full a set of information about the proposed appointment as possible.

It is not clear whether this happened in the Haumaha case. What we do know is that when Police Minister Stuart Nash announced the appointment in May he lauded Haumaha for his “clear vision and leadership skills” and as “a highly respected leader across our communities.” Yet, just over a month later, his Government was moving to establish an independent inquiry into this same appointment.

The process to establish the inquiry was unusual in its own way. Previous inquiries set up under the 2013 Inquiries Act have followed a more deliberative path. Unlike them, this inquiry was established following an oral item being raised at Cabinet in early July, where it was decided, in principle, to hold an inquiry, and that the Minister of Internal Affairs would be the minister to whom it would report. The paper formally establishing the terms of reference for the inquiry did not come before the Cabinet for another couple of weeks, after the inquiry had been announced publicly.

Questions have been raised as to why the Minister of Internal Affairs was named the minister to whom the inquiry would report, rather than the Minister of Police or the Minister of State Services. Given his public comments, the Minister of Police was obviously compromised, but not so the Minister of State Services. The official reason given at the time was that the Minister of State Services could hardly oversee an inquiry into an agency for which he was responsible does not stack up. Earlier this year, the same Cabinet established an inquiry to report to the Minister of Health on the mental health system. There was no suggestion then that such a move was improper, making the current claim simply absurd.

Much has been made of Haumaha’s tenuous links to New Zealand First, and iwi links to some of its prominent personnel. On the face of it, none of these appear sufficiently strong to have had any influence on his original appointment. It is possible, however, that New Zealand First may have been concerned about potential perceptions, and that Louise Nicholas’ public criticisms in late June provoked a pre-emptive move by New Zealand First ministers for a limited inquiry as is now underway to prevent any wider embarrassment to the party. In that context the appointment of the Minister of Internal Affairs over the Minister of State Services to oversee the inquiry makes sense.

What should have been foreseen, though, is that she is insufficiently deft to explain satisfactorily the nuances of the issue, which is why the Government now looks so exposed, and explains why the Prime Minister has spoken as she has. But what has not been explained is the silence of the Minister of State Services – is he satisfied with the performance of the State Services Commission and therefore sees no need for an inquiry, or has he just been rolled?

What is clear, though, that all this happened during the absence of the Prime Minister, and that she was not as well briefed as she might have been on what was going on. Time will tell if there are other issues yet to emerge where this was also the case. These types of unexpected issues have the potential to derail Governments for long periods of time. Not of their making always, they nevertheless require their solution, and so test the mettle of Governments to deal with them, without becoming becalmed, and losing their wider momentum. How the Prime Minister and Government deal with the ongoing fallout of the Haumaha Inquiry will show how much “bottle” they have for the wider issues they will face for the balance of this term.

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