Colin Espiner thinks Helen Clark has run out of options.
True to her natural style of caution, Clark has given herself the night to sleep on it. She will take advice tonight on the likely impact on her government of cutting Peters adrift, and take some soundings from NZ First about what may happen to Labour’s relationship after the election if she sacks or suspends him.
It’s understandable that Clark doesn’t want to sack her Foreign Minister. It’s a bad look. It will make him very angry. It may derail the third and final reading of the Emissions Trading Bill. It could end her hopes of a fourth term.
But she simply no longer has any choice. The Prime Minister has given Peters as much rope as she can afford to without being dragged under in the same whirlpool currently sucking the NZ First leader beneath the waves.
What are her options? She could argue that the SFO investigation is only into NZ First, not Peters himself. Except that the SFO specifically mentions the involvement of ”a minister in the government” in its press release. She could argue that the investigation has nothing to do with Peters’ job as Foreign Minister. Except that as Foreign Minister Peters is the representative of New Zealand abroad and it’s difficult to have someone under investigation for fraud in such a role.
She could argue natural justice. That has got her through so far with the privileges committee – just. But the SFO is a whole different kettle of fish. The privileges committee is the proverbial wet bus ticket. The SFO is the big time. Clark cannot have a minister of the Crown signing ministerial warrants while under investigation from the SFO.
The positives for Clark are these: Sacking Peters will make her look decisive. It will end John Key’s short but triumphant occupation of the moral high ground. It will disassociate her and her government (partially) from further fallout, for it looks as though there certainly will be further fallout. It will not bring down the government.
In some ways it’s a sad end for Peters. He has been a reasonably good Foreign Minister. Labour could not have governed without him. But he has brought this entire controversy upon himself. Peters has no-one else to blame. Clark knows she must sack him. And sack him she must.
The alleagions are still just allegations and Peters as an individual is innocent until anything is proved to the contrary. But the role of Foreign Minister is one of the most important in the government and while questions are raised over him personally it reflects on the position he holds.
Clark has to accept that Peters is not just damaging himself, his party, her and her government, he’s risking New Zealand’s reputation in the international community.