Minister quits over two bottles of wine
Two bottles of wine have prompted the shock resignation of Cabinet Minister Phil Heatley, but he could make a comeback if he gets a favourable report from the Auditor-General over his misuse of expenses.
His resignation, which even caught the Prime Minister by surprise, comes after Heatley admitted making a false ministerial credit card declaration for wine he ordered at the National Party Conference.
An emotional Heatley resigned as Housing and Fisheries Minister on Thursday morning over misspending taxpayers' money and making wrongful declarations.
He has now given all his accounts to the Office of the Auditor General to investigate.
Key told an afternoon media conference his officials have been talking to the Auditor-General's office already over the expenses issue.
An investigation was to start on Thursday afternoon to check the appropriateness of the expenses claimed by Heatley, Key says.
He says his minister has been sloppy, but he has no evidence of deliberate abuse of the system.
Heatley wasn't pushed, in fact quite the opposite.
Key says he would have preferred Heatley had stood down while the Auditor-General investigated his claims, but the Whangarei MP offered his resignation and this has been accepted with regret, Key says.
"I wouldn't have asked for his resignation. It was the Minister himself that offered his resignation."
What he did wrong
Key explained the inconsistency in Heatley's expenses documents.
"It came to my attention yesterday that the documentation used to support Mr Heatley's expenses claim for $70 in Christchurch last year was incorrect," Key says.
The expenses claim said the spending was listed as 'Minister and Spouse: dinner'.
But the credit card receipt showed the card was used for two bottles of wine for his and his wife's table at the National Party Conference.
"I have asked Mr Heatley to explain the inconsistency and he has indicated to me that this was an unintentional error on his part, and he had not sought to mislead Ministerial Services in the characterisation of his claim.
"However, he feels that he has not lived up to the high standards required of a minister and has resigned his portfolios."
Key says he expects high standards from ministers but they are also only human and make mistakes.
"I have no reason at this stage to believe that Mr Heatley has been dishonest. However, it is important that the Auditor-General investigates this issue to ensure that public money is spent appropriately."
He has asked Ministerial Services to work with the Auditor-General to look at systems and processes for dealing with ministerial expenses.
Heatley is the second scalp from Key's Cabinet after Richard Worth resigned following the election over inappropriate behaviour.
Key says using a credit card in the way the former Housing Minister would not cost most workers' their jobs.
"I'm not sure that at every company in New Zealand if someone inappropriately, but in a misguided basis, used their credit card for a small amount they would be sacked. In fact in my experience they wouldn't be."
But Labour says there must be more to it.
"It just seems strange and a mystery as to why a minister would stand down when his Prime Minister said he didn't need to," says Annette King, Labour MP for Rongotai.
Maurice Williamson (Housing) and David Carter (Fisheries) will take over Heatley's portfolios for now.
Heatley's "step too far"
Heatley's latest incorrect claim came after he had already been caught out using his ministerial credit card to pay for a family trip and other personal transactions.
"I've had to pay back things that have been charged and I need to do that and I will do that," he told a media conference on Thursday morning.
"The difference here is I have represented, signed a document, that is not accurate and that's a step too far. It's just a step too far. It tipped it over the edge for me."
Heatley said it had been a privilege to serve as a cabinet minister and he had failed to live up to his own standards.
"...And for that I am embarrassed and immensely sorry".
"I have absolutely no desire to become the focus of a distraction for this government, which has much to do to grow the economy, invest in jobs and help Kiwis get ahead."
Heatley was not surprised Key accepted the resignation, which he tendered on Thursday morning.
"I wanted him to accept it because I meant it. I want to resign, I haven't lived up to my own standards."
He will remain in parliament as MP for Whangarei which he has represented since 1999, he says.
"I think I need to spend a long time on the backbenches."
Heatley this week paid back over $1,000 worth of illegitimate spending, the bulk of which involved a taxpayer-funded family trip to the South Island where he visited Kaikoura's Whale Watch and attended a conference in Christchurch.
He made a public apology after the spending discrepancies, including wine and food he bought at a National Party conference last year, were revealed in The Dominion Post.
Heatley has also been under fire in the past for his accommodation allowances.
Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee also apologised this week and repaid $151.90 spent outside the rules in September for a lunch with his electorate staff.