IS MFAT PUTTING UP A SMOKESCREEN TO PROTECT MCCULLY?
By Richard Harman (reporter)
The tense relationship between Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and his Ministry was clearly evident when officials tried to stonewall Select Committee questions about its handling of the Malaysian diplomat affair.
At the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Opposition MP, and Former Foreign Minister, Phil Goff asked MFAT acting CEO Craig Hawke why the Minister of Foreign Affairs had not been aware that the Ministry had proposed that the Malaysian Defence Attaché return home rather than face the court after he was charged with indecent assault in Wellington last year.
Mr Hawke sat silent for nearly 10 seconds before he replied referring to a statement by the Minister last December 16 relating to a review by former Treasury Secretary of the Treasury John Whitehead of the way the Ministry handled the affair and which Mr Cully said the Crown Law Office had advised could not be made public till the trial of the Malaysian diplomat had been completed.
But Mr Goff insisted that questions about communications between the Ministry and the Minister could not affect the trial.
The Ministry repeated the Crown Law office advice.
Mr Goff, his voice raised, declared that this had to be seen as a smokescreen.
“It is a legitimate question when there is poor communication between a Ministry and a Minister to ask why and there is no excuse at all for that information to be withheld on the basis of a court case that this does not intrude into,” he said.
Labour’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, Craig Shearer, said that the Ministry’s stance effectively meant that the Opposition could not ask any questions about the entire incident because the Minister had commissioned a report and that had shut the entire process down and nobody could talk about it.
He said that what the Government had done had been to supress any information about the incident.
Mr Goff said that New Zealanders would see no justification at all for withholding information simply because it might be embarrassing to the Minister.
But the Ministry officials did drop a hint as to what might be in the Whitehead Report.
Gerard van Bohemen (MFAT Deputy Secretary, Legal) said that the issues Mr Goff had been talking about “go to the heart of the Whitehead Report.”
May 10 2014: Malaysian Defence Attaché Muhammed Rizalman bin Ismail, 38, is charged after allegations that he assaulted and attempted to rape to rape Tania Billingsley, 22, in an incident on May 9 in the Wellington suburb of Brooklyn...
June 15 – 29: Foreign Minister McCully overseas. He says his office failed to pass on email from Ministry saying it has agreed to the diplomat claiming diplomatic immunity and he has returned to Malaysia.
July 1: MFAT CEO John Allen tells McCully that diplomat has not waived immunity as the Minister believed. Allen claims he only found this out the previous Friday --- six weeks after the diplomat was charged.
July 4: Prime Minister John Key says MFAT's deputy chief of protocol Mary Oliver, should assess her career options. Ms Oliver was the MFAT official who negotiated with the Malaysians. Informed sources have told Politik Mr Allen declined several requests by the Malaysian High Commissioner to talk to him personally. Ms Oliver and Mr Allen have both since resigned.
July 11: McCully commissions former Treasury Secretary John Whitehead to inquire into the affair.
October 25: Rizalman returns voluntarily from Malaysia to face trial
December 16: Whitehead presents his report which is immediately suppressed pending the outcome of the court case.
February 19, 2015. Rizalman is remanded to face trial on the charges of faces charges of assault with intent to commit sexual violation, and burglary by remaining in a building. His next appearance will be in April.