Justice Minister Judith Collins' silence on why she had sought a second opinion on the Bain compensation was prompting speculation she was shopping for a verdict. But who knew she's respond like this?
Judith 'Crusher' Collins is back at it. Having had little luck actually crushing cars, today she's using her vice to scrunch the reputations of Justice Ian Binnie from Canada, and her own predecessor as Justice Minister, Simon Power. You have to love that you won't die wondering with Collins!
In a press release this morning, Collins dispenses with any niceties as she finally explains why she's decided to have Binnie's report into the question of compensating David Bain peer reviewed by Robert Fisher QC.
At the start of the month we learnt Collins has asked Fisher, a former High Court judge, for a second opinion on whether the government should compensate Bain, who spent almost 13 years in prison for the murder of his family members. Bain was acquitted in 2009 and it's understood -- though it has never been confirmed -- that Binnie had decided Bain was probably innocent and deserved compensation.
The second look was a terrible u-turn by National, raising questions about natural justice and suggesting that it lacked faith in its own process. It looked as if Collins was shopping around for the answer she wanted. Andrew spelled it out very well here last week.
The review itself, by a New Zealander, contradicted the government's stance of just a year ago.
Simon Power, announcing Binnie's review last year, stressed the Canadian's "distinguished career", adding:
“Due to the long-running and high-profile nature of the case, and after consultation with Mr Bain’s lawyers, it was decided a judge from outside New Zealand would be appointed."
Collins, in appointing Fisher, decided a New Zealander could pass judgment after all, contradicting Power. But she also contradicted herself. When Binnie handed in his findings in September, Collins publicly thanked him for his "very comprehensive work". Comprehensive reports, however, don't need a re-do.
Still, Collins stayed silent on the crucial question of why a second opinion was needed, allowing speculation to fill the gap in the facts. I raised this point in my "huddle" with Larry Williams on ZB last Friday. While Larry was arguing the peer review was right and proper, I pointed out we couldn't know either way because only the cabinet had seen the Binnie report. We had no way of knowing why Collins had not accepted it and what was meant to be so wrong with the report. The risk was that people thought Collins had decided on Bains' guilt, thought compensation would be politically damaging and was looking for a way out. She needed to release the report, or short of that explain why, I said.
Today Collins has done the latter, saying with little ambiguity that the "distinguished" Binnie didn't do the job well enough.
“My concerns are broadly that the report appeared to contain assumptions based on incorrect facts, and showed a misunderstanding of New Zealand law. It lacked a robustness of reasoning used to justify its conclusions".
“This was not a decision I made lightly, but one that was absolutely necessary. Put simply, it would not be acceptable to make a recommendation to Cabinet based on a report that would not withstand the considerable scrutiny it would attract".
“I am very disappointed this peer review is needed – I think we would all agree that a timely conclusion to this matter would be best for everyone. But justice must be done – a robust and proper process is the only way to ensure a certain and final conclusion to Mr Bain’s claim".
And just to finish the poor blighter off:
“Since then [September], I have received from Justice Binnie, unsolicited, two further versions of his report".
So in sum, Collins is asying -- Binnie wasn't able to construct an argument robust enough to support its own conclusions, didn't know the law (despite Power noting "Canada has a compensation regime with similarities to New Zealand’s"), and made incorrect assumptions on facts of law. And since I pointed that out to him, he's been sending me new versions in a pathetic attempt to get back on my good side!
Not only does that harm Binnie's international reputation, it implicitly criticises Power for picking him in the first place and the process cabinet signed up to. Why did the former minister choose the wrong man for the job? Why did he bother going offshore? And why did he commit $400,000 to a process that wasn't guaranteed value for the taxpayer's money?
Really, it's one heck of a press release that can crush two respected men and raise so many uncomfortable questions for her own party. But it's so refreshing in its bluntness and lack of spin, you've gotta love it. We could do with more like that from this government.
While some sort of statement from Collins was necessary, as I argued on Friday, few ministers would have worded it quite like this. It didn't really pan out with the cars, but perhaps the 'Crusher' nickname is well suited after all.