Analysis: NZ POLITICS DAILY: The unaccountability of elites

Mistakes by those in authority can lead to disasters and misfortunes of various magnitudes. Yet a number of recent examples – ranging from the Pike River tragedy through to the Havelock North water contamination crisis – suggests there is often a worrying lack of consequences or accountability for the authorities involved.

Following on from yesterday’s Political Roundup column about managers failing to prevent serious fraud in a government department (Can the Auditor-General be trusted to combat corruption?), an obvious question is whether New Zealand has a culture in which there is a lack of accountability for elites who make serious mistakes.

This need for this question is further underlined by Peter Newport’s strongly argued opinion piece, Is fraudster Joanne Harrison’s old boss really fit to lead NZ’s top public watchdog? In this must-read piece published yesterday, Newport details all of the whistle-blowing attempts to alert Ministry of Transport managers to the crimes being committed in the government department, and how those whistle-blowers then lost their jobs, seemingly as a result.

Reading Newport’s account, it seems that much of the fraud was entirely preventable. He asks: “Where were human resources? The Public Service Association? The police? The SFO? The auditor general? The chief executive? This all happened in a modern New Zealand government ministry. In the full light of day.”

He concludes that “the chief executive, and his successor, have consistently refused to properly investigate either what she got away with or the further systemic failings behind the scenes… It’s disgusting. Where does the buck stop and who gets the whistle-blowers their jobs back?”

Other recent accountability shortcomings
Earlier this month, the inquiry into the Havelock North campylobacter outbreak released its report, which seemingly failed to find anyone in particular to blame. Many still pointed the finger at Mayor Lawrence Yule, who refused to fall on his sword – see the Hawke’s Bay Today’s Gastro fall out: Parker calls for Yule's resignation.

The failure of local politicians and authorities to take full responsibility caused many to protest – see Nicki Harper’s Calls for accountability over water crisis. In this, the Taxpayers' Union’s Jordan Williams is reported as singling out the council's chief executive who “was paid $328,713 last year, and it was time the responsibility of the position, used to justify the salary, came home to roost.”

The various warnings about the potential for water contamination provided to the council are detailed by Mike Williams in his column, Disaster stance total nonsense. He says that “warnings to the council were apparently ignored. "Put this (1) ignored warning together with (2) the absence of action after previous pollution episodes, (3) the lack of a maintenance schedule for the well-heads and (4) the nonexistence of a council emergency response strategy and it adds up to thoroughly incompetent governance by the Hastings district mayor and the councillors.”

Other local authorities are also grappling with issues of accountability – perhaps the most infamous being the wastewater system blowout in the far North’s Kaipara Council, with the council now being told it “can't recover millions from its former chief executive over alleged mismanagement” – see Delwyn Dickey’s Kaipara Council CEO not liable for Mangawhai wastewater stink.

There is one senior public servant who has actually resigned over a scandal even though it’s not clear that he should have. This followed the investigation into the Ministry of Social Development’s data-sharing blunder – see Stuff’s MSD deputy quits after botch-up with client data security, despite having 'no direct involvement.'

It seems the investigation actually found a lot of fault with the government: “Former Deloitte consultant Murray Jack, who led the investigation, made it clear the ministry was asked to implement policy in an unworkable timeframe, and the security issues were a direct consequence of that.” 

The unexpected resignation has led The Press newspaper to ask: “If Murray Edridge had no direct involvement, why did he need to resign, especially as no actual privacy breach occurred in this instance?” – see: Govt's poorly conceived personal data collection push will erode trust. The editorial concludes: “One official falling on his sword is not enough to restore confidence.”

Questions about accountability culture
Part of New Zealand’s democratic deficit relates to a lack of a culture of accountability in public life and governance. According to Karl du Fresne, “Accountability, the long-established principle that someone should be seen to take responsibility for serious mistakes, is frequently talked about but rarely practiced” – see his column, Accountability the price of keeping the system honest.

He makes some important points about the apparent decline in standards of accountability in political and public life in New Zealand, pointing out that the end result, is “public confidence in ‘the system’ continues to be steadily eroded.

This is a major democratic problem, says du Fresne: “If no one ends up accepting personal responsibility and incurring a penalty, there's little incentive to make sure it doesn't happen again. That's why, in the Westminster parliamentary system, ministers bear ultimate responsibility for their departments and are expected to resign if their subordinates fail seriously in their duty. This applies even though the minister may have had no idea that things were going pear-shaped. The rationale behind the principle is that it puts pressure on ministers to ensure everyone's doing their job properly. That creates a culture of rigour and discipline that filters down through the system and keeps everyone on their toes.”

Part of the problem is that “genuine political commentary and critical analysis in New Zealand has been eroded almost to the point of non-existence over the past few decades.” This is the view of Bob Gregory of Victoria University of Wellington, who links the decline of accountability to the decline of public debate and information – see: No accountability for Pike River without 'politics'.

Gregory argues – particularly with reference to the disasters of Cave Creek in 1995, and Pike River in 2010 – that there is an inevitable attempt to close down debate: “When something goes tragically wrong, those who feel vulnerable in such situations will usually do whatever they can to limit such debate, even to close it down, and to be less than forthcoming with evidence that would better inform it. They may also be able to do 'deals' with key figures in authority so that 'important' reputations are protected and careers saved.”

So, does all of this lack of accountability mean New Zealand is possibly more vulnerable to corruption that people assume? This is discussed by former parliamentary staffer Grant McLachlan in his opinion piece, NZ should raise the bar on corruption

McLachlan suggests New Zealand isn’t well protected from corruption: “Our processes to deal with corruption are flawed. Politicians wavered over Taito Phillip Field and Donna Awatere Huata's conduct for months until the police were involved. Louise Nicholas exposed police internal discipline inadequacies, which continue to be a problem. When a judge in our highest court doesn't declare a conflict of interest, the Attorney-General shouldn't offer the judge a golden handshake to save the taxpayer the cost of an inquiry. When a dodgy mine explodes killing 29, out-of-court payments should not influence the dropping of a prosecution. The Protected Disclosures Act was meant to protect good faith whistle-blowers when reporting ‘serious wrongdoing’. Poor internal processes, however, have resulted in witch-hunts and whitewashes.”

And are New Zealand’s whistle-blowing laws really up to the task of protecting the people blowing the whistles? Jim Tucker outlines how we have “the Protected Disclosures Act to encourage people to report serious wrongdoing in their workplace. It supposedly protects employees who want to blow the whistle, and it applies to public and private sector workplaces” – see: How governments keep a lid on ineptitude.

However, Tucker says the laws don’t necessarily work out well for whistle-blowers: “Some blowers have found to their cost that going public with an allegation for which they have documented proof may still land them in trouble with the Employment Relations Authority, which has sometimes found an employee should have reported to an official authority rather than the news media.”

Also, he points out that government contracts and funding can play a strong role in keeping people in line – they don’t want to have the tap turned off by speaking out when things are going wrong. This is why the recent controversy over Alfred Ngaro’s threats caused such a storm.

Finally, does the culture of misinformation and opaque politics play a part in limited accountability? Graham Adams thinks so and says there is good reason for being appalled by the deception that comes out of government these days. He says “Kept in the dark and fed endless bullshit, it’s difficult for even engaged citizens to make sense of much in New Zealand’s public and political life” – see: Information underload: We're all mushrooms now.

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