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State Services Commissioner ‘unfit for the job’ says Little

UPDATED: Bennett stands by Rennie | Edwards says SSC boss needs to put aside personal friendships and "run this investigation in a modern way".

Mon, 24 Nov 2014

New Labour leader Andrew Little has called for state services commissioner Iain Rennie to be stood down after his handling of the Roger Sutton sexual harassment case.

But State Services Minister Paula Bennett says that Mr Rennie retains her confidence.

Prime Minister John Key also backed the commissioner, but qualified "He should not have put himself into a joint press conference. No one is arguing he did it well." Mr Rennie miscalculated, the PM said.

"The idea of calling a press conference so he can give his version of events, that sounds to me more like a state services commissioner in the form of Iain Rennie taking leave of his senses and being unfit for the job,"  Mr Little told TV One’s Q+A programme.

Mr Little told Q+A Mr Rennie must be an investigated in terms of "his fitness to hold that job."

Calling for the state services commissioner's head is Mr Little's first major play since becoming Labour leader.

“What Iain Rennie did in allowing the press conference to go ahead, and cheered on by the head of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet [Andrew Kibblewhite], John Key's senior public servant who looks after him, that was just such a departure from the standards that we ought to expect of those whose job it is to maintain standards in the public service.  I think now we're entitled to conclude that Iain Rennie is unfit for the job, and there's got to be now an investigation into his fitness to hold that job,” he says.

Mr Rennie has copped flak from a number of quarters, including the PSA and equal opportunities commissioner Jackie Blue for organising a press conference last Monday for Mr Sutton. Criticism centres on why Mr Sutton was given a platform by Mr Rennie while no one spoke for the complainant; whether confidenitality clauses were broken; and why the State Services Commissioner did not use the phrase "serious misconduct" until a day later. More serious allegations against the CERA CEO emerged during the week. Mr Sutton is seeing out his notice on gardening leave.

"Boys' club"
Dr Edwards said there was a public perception of a "boys' club" mentality around the Sutton controversy.

"Mr Rennie needs to put aside any personal feelings he might about his friendship, perhaps, with Roger Sutton and run this investigation in a modern way."

Public perceptions have changed, the NZ Politics Daily commentator says.

"10 or 20 years ago maybe these allegations of sexual harassment wouldn't have been such a big deal. But we've entered a whole new sphere and maybe Roger Sutton and Iain Rennie haven't really caught up with this; that people care very strongly about sexual harassment as we've seen with the 'roastbusters' and so many other scandals. People are saying 'enough'."

Up to the public
So will the government cut Mr Rennie loose, or lean on him to resign?

"It’s very difficult to get rid of a senior public service CEO like Rennie without a lot of trouble," Otago University political science lecturer Bryce Edwards said on Breakfast this morning.

"The government will be polling. They’ll be doing they’re telephone opinion polling overnight to track how the public’s feeling. If they feel they can get away with it, then he won’t have to go. So it’s up to the public essentially."

However, even if he rides out the immediate controversy, Mr Rennie will be gone next time his contract come up, Mr Edwards says.

"He's an albatross around their neck. He will be gone eventually."

Let "Roastbusters" case go to court
When asked about the Roast Busters case Mr Little told Q+A he was, “very concerned actually about this growing tendency for the way prosecutorial discretion is exercised by the Police, it seems to be much more conservative.  Once upon a time the Police had a view, particularly with serious offending that is wasn’t their job to be sort of judge, jury and executioner.  If there was enough to take a case, enough evidence, give it to the courts and let them decide.”  

Watch the full interview here.

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State Services Commissioner ‘unfit for the job’ says Little