Stuart Nash resigns as Police Minister after claim of 'political interference'

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has accepted Stuart Nash's resignation as Police Minister after the Labour MP on Wednesday admitted previously calling the Police Commissioner about appealing a court judgement.

It raised concerns about potential interference in independent police operations. The Cabinet Manual for ministers says ministers don't comment on or involve themselves in investigations or decisions around prosecutions.

Hipkins said Nash's actions were "unwise" and don't meet the expectations of the Cabinet Manual.

"Stuart Nash has reflected on his actions and has tendered his resignation in the police portfolio. As such, I have accepted that resignation effective immediately and I have advised the Governor-General to accept it, which she has now done."

He said his actions were "a serious error of judgement".

If Nash hadn't offered his resignation, Hipkins would have removed him from the role.

Police Ministers should have a good relationship with the Police Commissioner, but "that relationship should respect the independence of the police". Nash wasn't the Police Minister at the time of the phone conversation, Hipkins said.

"The independence of the police in making prosecutorial decisions is one we need to safeguard very clearly and also the independence of the courts and the separation between the executive and the courts and that we should not be criticising individual court decisions such as this."

Hipkins said Nash had already offered his resignation via message before the pair spoke on Wednesday. It was a "relatively brief conversation".

"He's shown an error of judgement and he has paid the price for that."

Megan Woods will be the acting Minister of Police, the Prime Minister said.

Nash will remain in other ministerial portfolios, like Economic Development Minister. Hipkins said accepting Nash's resignation was a "proportionate" approach to the issue. 

"It is absolutely important that ministers make themselves very familiar with what is required of them in terms of the Cabinet Manual and that they uphold those standards."

Hipkins said it was his understanding there was not an appeal in the case in question. Feedback was that "Nash's representations had no bearing on the Commissioner's decisions or the police's decisions".

The Prime Minister said Nash has assured him that he has no connections to the individuals involved in the court case and that this is the only occassion a conversation of this nature has happened.

National deputy leader Nicola Willis said it was the "right thing to do".

"The question we only now have to ask is why he was appointed to the role in the first place and how these error of judgements occurred. But good on them. That was the right thing to do. There are some principles in our democracy that all sides of Parliament agree to.

"We all agree independence between ministers and the police is really important and I am glad to have seen that upheld."

Willis wants to see Nash gone from Cabinet entirely.

"The error of judgement is just so grave that this is an issue where he should resign from the Cabinet entirely."

ACT's David Seymour agrees.

"Nash is unfit to be Minister for Economic Development, Forestry, or Oceans and Fisheries either. Stripping him of just his Police portfolio doesn't do justice to what a serious breach this is.

"The irony is that Nash's defence was that he wasn't Minister of Police at the time of his offence. Hipkins' weak response is to make sure he again isn't the Minister of Police.

Attorney-General and Labour MP David Parker said Nash's comments were "wrong".

"I have told him that... he accepted that."

Parker said he is "always concerned to protect the independence of the judiciary and I think we do it very well in New Zealand".

He doesn't think Nash has "meaningfully" threatened that. 

"He has suffered the consequences of media scrutiny and my comments."

Speaking to Newstalk ZB on Wednesday morning about court judgements, Nash said in one instance he had "phoned up the Police Commissioner and said surely you're going to appeal this". 

"I don't know if you remember when we were doing the firearms stuff, I was wandering around telling everyone that if you have an illegal firearm, you can face up to five years in jail. 

"This bloke didn't have a license, had illegal firearms, illegal ammunition and had guns without a licence, and got home detention. I think that was a terrible decision by the judge. Judges need to read the room on this."

Nash was unrepentant earlier on Wednesday, saying he wasn't the Police Minister at the time he made the phone call and he didn't believe he had interfered. He couldn't say when exactly the phone call happened.

"I was chewing the fat with a guy who was a mate about a decision that I thought was very bad in the circumstances that I had been involved in when I was the Minister of Police and buying back firearms and I'm going to leave it at that."

He said he hadn't followed up with the Commissioner about the case.

Nash's comments to media defending his radio remarks were also an error of judgement, Hipkins said. 

Nash's comments on the radio shocked the ACT Party earlier.

"The Police Minister of all people should know that police independence is paramount. We do not want to live in a country where politicians get involved in police prosecution decisions," Seymour said.

"It wouldn't be the first time if a Minister in this Government distanced themselves from an issue saying 'of course we have to respect the independence of police operations.'"

Seymour asked: "How on earth does [Nash] think such political interference in prosecutions is acceptable?"

National's police spokesperson Mark Mitchell called it a "serious lapse of judgement" by Nash.

"He should not be calling his “mate” Andrew Coster about individual cases. He has then doubled down, criticising a judicial decision, which is a clear breach of the Cabinet Manual. He must resign."

National public service spokesperson Simeon Brown called it an "abuse of power" by Nash.

While Nash may not have been the Minister of Police, the Cabinet Manual - the rulebook for ministers - is black and white. 

"Following a long-established principle, Ministers do not comment on or involve themselves in the investigation of offences or the decision as to whether a person should be prosecuted, or on what charge".