Nick Smith – A Greek Tragedy of his own making

Nick Smith got it right, then wrong, then right again. But Is this the second or third act in the Greek tragedy that is his political career?

The loss of Nick Smith from National's top ranks has the whiff of Greek tragedy. Or perhaps a Disney cartoon. You can almost see the little angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. Several times Smith does the right thing and refuses to get involved in a friend's ACC case. But then he relents – the devil gets in his ear – and it's all over.

Of course it's not as simple as that. Errors of judgment are seldom binary. After dozens of emails and personal pressure from Bronwyn Pullar, Smith essentially seems to have tried to find a happy medium that supports a friend and protects his position. Except that there is no medium, no fine line to walk. Minister's don't get to do favours for friends. Especially not on letterhead. End of.

And that's the tragedy – that he got it right before he got it wrong. He properly told her he couldn't get involved. But then he did.

The internal contradictions are all there in that first letter. He says he can't get involved, but the letter itself and the letterhead above it are undoubted interference. And that's not on. Whether she's an old friend or an old lover is irrelevant. Minister's can't act for friends.

And that's the bit will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many voters. Tens of thousands of New Zealanders have had to wade through ACC claims. A fair chunk of those will have had to fight for one thing or another. They don't get to email their old pal the minister for help, or take their case to several Cabinet ministers, or get meetings with senior managers, or lobby board members.

Pullar shouldn't have received any special assistance or access just because she's well-connected. And clearly she did. Indeed, I reckon that happens quite a lot in this small country and it's not good.

Smith insists that nothing he did amounted to interference in Brownwyn Pullar's case. But he simply can't make that assertion. The only people who can say whether his letters amounted to influence or pressure are the ACC staffers who recevied them. did they feel any pressure? Did that letterhead prompt a sense of obligation?

So Smith had to go. But no one can doubt how genuine the apology was. And the sense of personal loss.

The loss to National can be seen by how tetchy John Key was in the House yesterday and by the tweets and press releases from environmental groups regretting Smith's political demise. He knew his stuff and was the greenest part of National and someone who 'got' climate change. This is a capable, dedicated and popular minister lost.

It leaves me wondering what influence that has on the National-Green Memorandum of Understanding, which is still in negotiations. Does that make for a less Green-friendly Cabinet or more eager for National to polish its green cred?

For Key, it's another black mark. His initial insistence that Smith had not broken the rules was plain wrong. But you can't ignore the fact that once he realised that, he acted swiftly. There was no lingering remorse, just a swift exit.  Another sign that Key's the kind of boss that lets you get on with it when given responsibility, but will show you the door at the first sign of failure.

The political twist is that Smith's resignation stems back to his own handling of the ACC portfolio. He pushed ACC to cut costs. He claimed there was a financial crisis that required cutbacks, when in reality it was just a blip in ACC's accounts.

In the process ACC has been looking hard at ways to deny claims - just look at the series of 'ACC Files' in the Herald in recent weeks. Amidst those claims was a woman who wouldn't take no for an answer and had the ability to write to her old friend, the minister, and argue that ACC was denying genuine claimants their dues.

Isn't that the way it goes in Greek tragedies – people's own choices catch up with them in the end? But is this the final act? Or will Smith rise again for one more act?