Judith Collins wants to go to war with the media. That probably is ... not wise.
When Bill English warned National's northern region conference that the upcoming election would be "close", he meant it as a caution against complacency. Judith Collins, however, appears to have misinterpreted it as something of a personal dare.
How else to interpret her decision to declare war on the parliamentary press corp only 20 weeks out from an election? Does she not remember how well the last outbreak of hostilities between National and journalists - the Battle of the Teapot Tapes - went?
Furthermore, in terms of an attack on an enemy that must be crushed into subservience, Collins' effort was pretty weak. (If you haven't yet seen it, you can watch her in action on TV3 here, while the NZ Herald summarises the story here.)
It is true that the story she was being interviewed about when she went on the offensive was itself a bit of a damp squib. The Labour MP Ross Robertson had asked her while she was Police Minister about what leave his daughter (a police officer) might be entitled to, so she asked police commanders, and they told her he could find out the information online. No problems there at all, as I'll come back to. But she then used the interview to press on and say:
It's just like when a member of the press gallery approached me about how her then husband was having difficulty in becoming recruited by New Zealand Police. She said this was a problem and she had been told that her husband wasn't going to be acceptable as a police recruit because of her family connections.
Quite how this example was meant to offset any possible problems with how she treated Robertson's enquiry is not clear to me. Collins described it as being a "very inappropriate" approach, one that she would have nothing to do with. But if it is "just like" the Robertson one she is being asked about, then why was it OK for her to subsequently ask a question of the Police on his behalf? And if it was OK for Collins to ask a question of the Police about Robertson's daughter's leave entitlements (as it was), then why was it so wrong for the reporter to approach her about her partner's possible employment hurdles?
As it's turned out, Collins overegged the matter anyway. The reporter in question, Katie Bradford (whom Collins not only named, but urged TV3 to report on) claims that:
"Back in 2010 my ex-partner was considering applying for the police force - at the time it had been suggested to him that he might have an issue with being accepted.
"I recall that this came up in an informal conversation between the minister and me but I never asked her to intervene."
Which itself raises the interesting question as to whether "informal conversations" between Judith Collins and members of the media are now fair game for reportage? That aside, however, it looks like Collins sought to declare war by firing a load of blanks.
I have blogged before on the issue of "constabulary independence" (an oddly archiac phrase - who talks about "constables" anymore?) here, when I chided John Key on ignoring it in relation to anti-deep sea oiling protestors. Basically, it amounts to elected politicians (and Ministers of the Crown in particular) not interfering in the activities of the police while they investigate and make prosecutorial decisions on individual matters of potential criminal wrongdoing. There's a couple of very good reasons why this is.
First, all people facing potential criminal charges ought to be treated equally. This is an aspect of the ideal of the "rule of law"; it applies to everyone, and so the rich and powerful ought to face the same consequences for breaching the law as do the poor and powerless.
Of course, in the real world this ideal is more aspirational than descriptive. There's lots of good reasons to believe that in fact certain types of people are far, far more likely to appear in court for their crimes than are other types. But insofar as we believe that this is the case, it is "A Bad Thing" that ought to be remedied.
The idea of constabulary independence then emerges from this equality before the law principle. If all ought to be treated equally, then the last thing you want is for those who wield political power to be dictating who does and doesn't face punishment for breaking it. That would be the ultimate in unequal justice; have a read of any of the Aurileo Zen novels to remind yourself of this.
Second, the police have lots and lots of quite coercive powers over society. They get to do things like physically constrain you and put you in a cell while searching through all your property for evidence. So, once again, the last thing you want is for those who wield political power to be dictating who the police use their powers against. Have a watch of The Lives of Others if you forget why this can lead to a pretty wretched state of affairs.
Everyone (apart from Maurice Williamson himself) can see how his actions in making enquiries of the police on behalf of Donghua Liu, enquiries in which he informed the police of Mr Liu's status as a "very large investor in the building and construction sector", offended against this principle that the police should be allowed to independently investigate and prosecute crimes. As John Key quite rightly said, there is no area of grey involved here.
But the principle of constabulary independence does not mean that the everything the police do should lie beyond political intervention. In fact, we wouldn't want that to be the case - the police should be responsible to the elected government of the day for its general performance and effectiveness. And so we have written into the Policing Act 2008 a line between accountability and independence.
Which means that we shouldn't get overly precious about a Police Minister doing things like asking commanders in general terms about what leave officers can get, or even what problems a person might have entering the force. Or, rather, we shouldn't be any more precious about such activities than we are with a Minister for Education asking questions about the difficulties a friend's child is having accessing special education support, or a Minster for Veterans Affairs being asked by a colleague to see if a relative is entitled to a war pension, or the like.
Sure, those are examples of Ministers throwing their political weight around for the interests of some particular individuals. But you know what? This is what Ministers do. And as long as it isn't setting the police on someone (or trying to call them off someone else), then let's not be too silly about it.