Electoral calculation was surely at the centre of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ unfortunate decision to keep flailing Minister Kiri Allan on in her job when alarm bells were going off about her integrity and mental health.
That decision has now led to tragedy for both the former Minister and a Government that is rocked by the unprecedented downfall of a Justice Minister being arrested in chaotic circumstances.
Allan’s final downfall was shocking, but not entirely surprising. For many months the Justice Minister displayed all sorts of puzzling behaviour suggesting she was in trouble and not necessarily fit to be a minister. And yet she was kept on in one of the top roles in politics despite the warning signs. That decision is something that Hipkins is now struggling to justify.
A History of Allan’s integrity violations
Kiri Allan’s downfall on Sunday night didn’t come out of the blue – the politician had been in trouble numerous times this year. And every one of those scandals could have been enough to have her suspended or even sacked. So despite the focus now being on Allan’s mental health, it’s worth reasserting that Allan’s conduct in the last few months raised serious questions about the politician’s integrity.
Integrity violation #1: Interference with RNZ. Allan’s first misdemeanour that raised questions about whether she had the integrity and judgement to be a minister was when she gave a hard-hitting speech at an RNZ event, calling out the state-owned broadcaster about its treatment of Māori staff, including her then fiancée, Māni Dunlop, who was leaving her job. The March speech at Dunlop’s farewell violated the rule that ministers must not interfere with the operations of state media.
Integrity violation #2: Failing to declare a conflict of interest. In April it was discovered that the Minister of Justice had failed to declare that the then Race Relations Commissioner – a person under the employment of the Justice Minister – had given her election donations totalling over $10,000 in 2020.
Integrity violation #3: Ministerial office relationships. The third set of integrity questions arose out of media reporting in June about Allan’s “workplace relationships”, which had caused four senior public servants to speak out publicly about her behaviour. One staff member decided to leave in mysterious circumstances, and numerous government department bosses were involved in discussions about the problem.
Hipkins’ call to keep Kiri Allan on
Allan’s series of integrity red flags raises questions about whether Hipkins made a serious mistake in not dealing with her situation earlier. The Prime Minister had to judge whether to suspend, demote or sack the Minister over these integrity issues. And mental health concerns meant there were added reasons to relieve her of her portfolios, or even to just give her more time off.
This would have been for the good of Allan herself. Arguably, the latest tragic result could have been avoided if the Prime Minister had dealt more firmly with Allan when she was under a cloud over her various integrity violations – particularly when the allegations arose about her misbehaviour and mistreatment in relation to staff in her ministerial office.
The last time a Cabinet Minister was in serious trouble for their treatment of ministerial staff was when Iain Lees-Galloway was immediately forced to resign in 2020 when he was outed for having previously had an affair with one of his staffers.
In the case of Allan, Hipkins took his time to get to the bottom of the allegations of problematic working relations in the minister’s office and decided Allan didn’t have to go. Neither he nor Allan have yet fronted up about the details of the mystery allegations and reasons that Allan’s staff member left the ministerial office.
Alarm bells ringing over Allan’s mental health
The fact that Allan has been suffering mental health problems has also entered the picture, and this too has made Hipkins’ decision more fraught. Today it’s reported that colleagues regarded Allan as “a ticking time bomb” and a “car crash waiting to happen”. Journalists are asking how the Prime Minister ignored the “red flags” about her behaviour. Was enough duty of care extended to Allan?
Allan’s openness about her mental health challenges was made particularly stark on social media. And one particular post she made on July 6 should have set off alarm bells. As reported on by Stuff political editor Luke Malpass on 8 July, Allan had posted to Instagram to suggest she was in emotional trouble, saying her former fiancé had “found new love less than a few weeks after we parted”, and that her own future was bleak as she believed that allegations directed at her “will stick”. She added: “with all these allegations thrown about, it looks like I’ve got no future in the one thing I do above all else – mahi.”
Reporting on this, Malpass pronounced that “Allan is clearly not in a good way” and he essentially argued that Hipkins needed to give her a more extended break from Cabinet for the sake of her wellbeing.
The very short period of time that Allan took off the job clearly wasn’t enough to deal with her mental health challenges. Much is now being made of the fact that Allan herself didn’t want more time off. And of course, there would have been a temptation for the PM to take the Minister at her word when she said she was OK.
Hipkins might even be praised for giving her the benefit of the doubt, as he had with so many other ministers when they initially fell into trouble (in particular, Stuart Nash and Michael Wood).
Of course, Hipkins would also have been on dangerous ground in sacking someone with poor mental health. As Hipkins himself has said, “If the message is that someone who confesses or reveals that they are struggling with mental health should be immediately sacked, I think that’s going to make the problem worse rather than better”.
Hipkins couldn’t afford to lose another minister
Hipkins would have been keenly aware of the need to avoid yet another major loss of talent from his government. Losing Allan under a cloud of scandal would have been something to be avoided at all cost. To have sacked her was to invite electoral risk.
Hipkins would have calculated that the impact of suspending, demoting or sacking Allan would be yet another black mark against his government. After all, he had already had to endure the departures of Stuart Nash, Meka Whaitiri and Michael Wood – all under very dark clouds.
BusinessDesk journalist Dileepa Fonseka reports today that “Hipkins has almost had one minister resign on him every seven weeks since he became prime minister.” And losing his Justice Minister would have been something he was also desperate to avoid.
The Prime Minister might also have worried that he didn’t have the quality of ministers to replace her in her portfolios of Justice and Regional Development.
It was therefore something of a “roll of the dice” for Hipkins in keeping on a Minister under a cloud of all sorts of unanswered integrity questions and mental health challenges. As Danyl Mclauchlan wrote for the Listener website yesterday, this decision to keep Allan on “left him vulnerable to the risk that Allan’s situation would deteriorate rather than improve. He would lose another minister anyway, but in circumstances outside his control. Beehive insiders were gloomily aware that this was not an unlikely outcome. And this worst-case scenario has now come to pass.”
What happens now?
It is inevitable that the public will form a judgement on Hipkins’ management of the Allan scandal, and connect her departure to all the other ministers that have gone this year. It is hard to ignore that there have been five Cabinet reshuffles during his very short time as PM.
The latest polling on this came out last week in the 1News Verian survey, which asked voters if Hipkins was doing a good job managing his Cabinet ministers. Voters were split – with 40 per cent saying he was doing a good job, and 39 per cent disagreeing. Unless there is a surge of public sympathy for the fact that Hipkins has been dealt a difficult hand to play with, the judgement about his management of his government is likely to drop further.
Of course, voters won’t be thinking about integrity issues, ministerial management, or Kiri Allan when they go into the voting booths in October – it’s more likely they will be considering whether the Government has delivered, particularly on cost of living and justice issues. But a narrative will now be embedded in many voters’ minds that there is a core problem of competency and judgement that is lacking in the Beehive this year.
Further details of the Kiri Allan scandals – particularly the working relationships in her Beehive office – could still come out in the near future, raising more questions about why Chris Hipkins was aware of the alarm bells going off about his Justice Minister but decided against doing more. Voters will judge him poorly on this if they feel that the decisions he made were more about electoral calculation than doing the right thing.
Dr Bryce Edwards is the Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.