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The Heatley question

opinion

By Q+A producer Tim Watkin

Published: 11:54AM Friday February 26, 2010 Source: Q+A

So, where do you stand on Phil Heatley? Such are the range of positions being staked out around the country regarding his resignation as Minister , you could call this "The Heatley Question".

There's the "he broke the rules, he takes the consequences" line that says he crossed a clear line by falsely signing off on an official document, as argued by the Herald's John Armstrong. Heatley wrote "Wife and Spouse - dinner" and signed it. But it was not dinner, it was wine. Not understanding the rules is no excuse.

Some argue that the punishment is disproportionate to the crime and that he's thrown himself on the sacrificial pyre far too easily; that it all comes down to a couple of bottles of wine and a Ministerial warrant should be worth more than that. Others say that wine could be considered part of "dinner" and so the breaking of the rule is a technicality, while there are more than a few of those with company credit cards who are thinking they've signed off expenses in at least as loose a manner.

Still others say that, whatever the rules, Heatley's crime is lower down the sin scale than, say, Bill English and his housing claims or Rodney Hide and his travel expenses. Less taxpayers money was lost along the way. I think back to other Ministers who didn't resign despite weeks and months of public anger, most notably former Conservation Minister Denis Marshall, who refused to resign after the Cave Creek disaster. Does it make any sense that one Minister resigns over how he described a couple of bottle of wines on a form while another survives after the loss of life?

Then there are the New Zealanders who say that there must be more in those credit card statements that Heatley hasn't revealed yet, while there are also those ready to conclude that the Whangarei MP is a man with a strong personal code who simply made the sacrifice his integrity demanded.

All of which goes to show the thankless task MPs have trying to figure out what the public expects of them when it comes to spending taxpayers' money and honouring the public's moral code. As I've written before, it's right and proper for MPs to expect taxpayers to cover the costs of representing us in parliament. We want them to be active in our communities; we don't want them having to count paper clips to be able to do so. But in politics, where compromise and lesser evils are the very stuff of daily life, where do you draw the lines?

The political question hanging most heavily over Heatley is one of judgment. Why think taxpayers should pay for wine at a party do? And, even more tellingly, why spend $9.50 of taxpayers' money at Burger King? That just looks cheap. Most of us don't charge the boss for that extra five minutes of over-time, we don't demand a few dollars back for the odd phone call we make after hours or the petrol for popping into work at the weekend. It looks entitled, and it's often the little things - the smell of pettiness - that bug people most.

As one colleague pointed out to me, Heatley was Minister of Housing, working on behalf of some of this country's poorest. A trip to Burger King would be a decent night out for many of his tenants; two bottles of good wine a wild dream.

As the Prime Minister says, Heatley has been "careless". In the light of his wider credit card use, he's also been heartless and indulgent. And that, more than a technicality, is a hard thing for the public to forgive.

Tim Watkin is a Q+A producer. Q+A screens on TV ONE from 9.00am on Sundays. Read more of Tim Watkin's blogs here .

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