Probably not. But Phil Heatley's decision to fall on his sword over two bottles of wine is an awfully extreme act of contrition.

Let's assume that, contra some fevered speculation on the part of Labour's online cheer squad, the whole story about Phil Heatley has come out, and there isn't any nasty skeleton lurking in a deep, dark wardrobe. Given that, why exactly has he quit?

His explanation is: "I charged two bottles of wine already highlighted this week to my account as food and beverages. There was no food included in this purchase, and I accept this could be viewed as an inaccurate representation of the expense." Because this mistake involved signing a false declaration to Ministerial Services, and came on top of other reported misuses of his ministerial credit card to pay for personal business, he felt he had so failed his own personal code of ethics that he no longer deserved to hold a ministerial warrant. So he demanded that the Prime Minister accept his resignation.

Obviously, on its face such a staunch display of personal integrity is remarkable, especially when it comes from a member of a profession that the public does not normally credit with possessing such qualities. However, as praiseworthy as sacrificing everything to your principles is, there is something about this whole episode that just feels a bit off.

For one thing, there's a remarkable disproportionality between the severity of the original sin and that of the self-imposed punishment. I mean, the wine cost all of $70, for goodness sake! That fact alone is enough to ensure that his resignation won't be setting any precedent for the future - it's such a low level offence that there won't be many people in or out of Parliament that haven't committed similar transgressions.

For another, there's an air of self indulgence about Phil Heatley's approach to the issue, bordering on the flagelant. Yes, as Omar Little says, a man's gotta have a code. But when you accept the role of a minister of the Crown, you take on a duty of service to the public that to some extent supercedes your own ideas about what is right and wrong. I am by no means saying that politicians aren't permitted personal ethics, but I am saying that judgments as to whether you are fit for the role are not yours alone to make.

Which brings me to the other weird aspect of this whole business. John Key obviously did not want Phil Heatley to resign, and really seems not to understand why he did so. I would think that if your boss is telling you not to quit, going ahead and doing so - thereby generating far more trouble for your party than otherwise would be the case - isn't the smartest move to make. In fact, I suspect that the greatest barrier to Phil Heatley returning to cabinet is not what the Auditor-General might find in his investigation, but rather John Key's concerns about his overall personal stability. Watching Phil Heatley's emotionally strained behaviour at recent news conferences, I can't help but wonder if his statement that he "deserves a long period on the back benches" might not be one of hope rather than despair.

For all that, until the Auditor-General reports on the matter, everything else is empty speculation. I'm happy to accept this story as just one of a good guy who has found he's failed to live up to his own and the public's expectations, and now wants to do personal penance for that failure.

After all, that's a purely personal choice - at least it doesn't abuse the basic processes of lawmaking or of holding the government to account.

Comments (5)

by Craig Ranapia on February 26, 2010
Craig Ranapia

For one thing, there's a remarkable disproportionality between the severity of the original sin and that of the self-imposed punishment. I mean, the wine cost all of $70, for goodness sake!

 

Up to a point, Andrew.  But I think it's only fair to point out that both National and Labour have been quite happy to wax pontifical about public sector "waste and extravagance", while demanding fiscal BDSM from everyone else -- especially when those pesky wage rounds come up.

I'd also propose that while Housing and Fisheries aren't exactly the political minefields health, education and welfare are, they're still contentious enough that no sane government would want to hand a loaded gun to the opposition.  Especially when, dare I say, there's more than enough suspicion that big players in the fishing industry aren't exactly shy about lobbying over expense account liquid lunches.

 

by Bruce Thorpe on February 26, 2010
Bruce Thorpe

Cant take the heatley?

by Andrew Geddis on February 26, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Point taken, Craig. It is harder for a cost-cutting government to ride out these sorts of issues ...

by Tim Watkin on February 26, 2010
Tim Watkin

...And in the Housing portfolio, he's dealing with those for whom $9 at Burger King is a real treat let alone $70 on wine, and neither are things that their taxes should be paying for, even temporarily.

But isn't the line here that by signing off on that wine he broke the rules? Other MPs have been, er, generous to themselves within the rules. Heatley actually broke them.

On the other hand, some of those who stayed within the rules have cost the taxpayer more and been just as 'morally' wrong.

by Claire Browning on February 26, 2010
Claire Browning

Poor bloke. I'm no Heatley fan, but give the guy a break. Clearly, he needs one.

It takes a very particular kind of person to survive the Ministerial pressure-cooker. His approach does have an extraordinary Puritanical streak, and that in itself, plus the "emotionally strained behaviour" Andrew refers to, looks to me like he's just snapped. A drowning man clutching the spar of the nearest excuse, I reckon.

Perhaps he's decided on whatever level that it's just not worth the collateral costs, or knows he's on the verge of not coping. Suddenly, yesterday, I liked him a lot more than previously.

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