Tuesday, 25 November 2014

26 November 2014

I have thought for many years that the State Services Commission was redundant and should be abolished.

I felt that in these days of more autonomy for departmental chief executives the oversight role of the SSC was no longer necessary, and that the responsibility should rest with individual chief executives.

Recent events have forced me to change that view. Ironically, the utter ineptitude of the SSC’s handling of the Sutton case has been the reason. Here was a case of serious misconduct by a chief executive – which did require external intervention – which was so mishandled by the SSC as to draw attention to the need for it to be seriously reformed.

It should start at the top. The State Services Commissioner has performed very poorly in this instance, and should be replaced. A more vibrant, independent leadership, not politically beholden to the government of the day is needed to oversee reshaping the SSC to become a more performance improvement and professional standards monitor of government agencies and their chief executives, rather than the defender of the status quo and protector of the government’s perceived interests it seems to be at present.

In the same vein, the role of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet merits review. Too often, the DPMC has been seen as a protective mirror image of the SSC, each bolstering and supporting the other, rather than independent agencies carrying out separate functions. The attendance and performance of the DPMC chief executive at the infamous Sutton press conference highlights the point. Worse, however unfounded, is the implication of a very cosy arrangement between CERA, the SSC and DPMC, and Mr Sutton to resolve his situation in a way that minimised embarrassment, with no apparent regard for the victim(s) involved. DPMC should never forget that its role is to provide the Prime Minister of the day with the best possible advice and information on current issues, but not to act, as increasingly appears the case, as some sort of political praetorian guard.

State sector reform since the 1980s has been allegedly about promoting greater transparency and accountability. In the light of the Sutton case, a justifiable argument can be mounted that those principles have been well and truly cast aside, at least by central agencies. Serving the public interest appears to have given way to keeping the ship of state on a smooth course. That is the job of politicians, not public servants, and when they start to confuse the roles, it is time they were moved on.        

The only good to emerge from the Sutton case is to learn from all the bad practices it contains. The failings of Mr Sutton, the SSC and the DPMC are now obvious and need to be addressed. Beyond that lies the wider issue of the reform of the key agencies themselves.

But the biggest issue – and the one still unspoken of – is the impact on the victim(s) in both this case, and the many other potential cases continuing undetected across the public sector.

Now, that would be a task a fit for purpose SSC could really focus its attention upon.







Monday, 17 November 2014

18 November 2014

The case of Phillip John Smith has raised many questions which are now the subject of a number of inquiries so it is therefore imprudent to be commenting too specifically about it before these have been completed. However, it does raise broader issues regarding individual privacy in age of increasingly joined-up government.  

As a constituency MP, I am struck constantly by the number of people I see who genuinely assume that their basic information is already readily accessible by a range of government agencies. Moreover, they seem somewhat surprised – and in some cases become quite agitated (“I have already given that information to such and such a government agency”) – when asked to provide it again. They not only expect their information to have been passed on, but seem to think that is acceptable.

But, by way of contrast, people appear far more concerned at a global level about the sharing of their personal information and the implication that nothing is private any more, and that their every communication, indeed activity, is monitored in some way by an increasingly inquisitive state. And all this is occurring against a backdrop of a communications revolution which is making the capacity to obtain and share information greater day by day, and where the whole process of government is increasingly technologically driven.

This apparent contradiction has particular implications for New Zealand. We are at the forefront of nations when it comes to joined-up government services, and New Zealanders are increasingly taken with the idea of doing their business with government – like paying their taxes, or renewing their passports – on-line, and at a time of their convenience. They like the freedom new circumstances are now providing, and are pushing the government to do more in that space.

So when a case like Smith arises people properly want to know why the relevant agencies did not have access to all the relevant information at the earliest opportunity, and as a matter of course. Our lack of tolerance for Smith’s behaviour is understandable, and we have some lessons to learn from what has happened to ensure there are no repeats.

Now, a number of challenges lie within all of this. The information technology explosion has only just begun, and it would be foolish to think otherwise. Today’s challenges are likely to seem miniscule to those that lie ahead.

The potential advantages of joined-up government are great – particularly to the individual – but so too are the risks. Information sharing is the way of the future, but it needs to be balanced by ensuring that our privacy and official information legislation, and official functions like those of the Ombudsman and the Privacy Commissioner are kept fit for purpose to ensure they can effectively protect the individual from any Orwellian risks inherent in the expansion of joined-up government. The balance between information sharing to enhance people’s lives, and information sharing to control them is a fine one, demanding constant vigilance. There is, after all, now no turning back.






Tuesday, 11 November 2014

12 November 2014

“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice in Wonderland in 1865. “I don’t much care where – just so as I get somewhere.”

A couple of recent events remind me that nearly 150 years later, Alice’s plea still has a great deal of relevance.

Last year, as amendments were being made to legislation governing the GCSB there was a great deal of comment about the changes being made introducing a new era of transparency and accountability for the hitherto shadowy intelligence agencies. A process of regular five yearly independent reviews was established and assurances given that henceforth no New Zealanders would be spied on improperly.

Any surveillance warrants issued would have to be promptly reported to the Inspector-General of Security and so on and so forth. In short, the clear message was that the days of warrantless surveillance were over.

Or so it seemed – until last week and the proposed introduction of the 48 hour warrant free fishing expedition to allow the authorities to snoop around a person of interest for up to 48 hours without a warrant to see if more detailed surveillance was necessary. All this is not only at total variance with last year’s decisions, but is coming even before the first of the independent reviews due to get underway in the middle of next year. ISIS is the presumed pretext, but the scope of the proposal is breathtaking. It should be deferred, at least until the independent reviews of the GCSB and SIS have taken place.

In the same vein was the announcement a couple of days ago by a group of South Island Mayors that they wanted the right to control where and how any psychoactive substances approved in the future could be handled in their areas. They realised that it was difficult to ban these substances outright because their composition changed regularly, but they wanted the right to determine things locally.

That all seems realistic and reasonable. It mirrors what I have been saying for over three years about the difficulty of dealing with this issue. More importantly, it mirrors provisions written into the psychoactive substances legislation when it was going through Parliament last year – and at the specific request of local government – to allow local authorities to develop policy plans for the sale and distribution of these substances in their areas.

Yet for at least the last twelve months, Mayors have been railing against these provisions, saying they shift the burden of responsibility from central to local government and are a cop-out which will not work. And what is even more bizarre, they now say that the solution lies in their implementing the very provisions they have been so staunchly opposing, despite having called for them in the first place. Well, yes, that was why Parliament gave them the power they requested.

It all smacks of Alice’s wishful journey to somewhere – just anywhere. The destination has become secondary to the perception that someone is doing something, somewhere.

Curiouser and curiouser indeed.    







Wednesday, 5 November 2014

6 November 2014

Solid Energy’s decision not to re-enter the Pike River mine is awful, horrific and tragic – especially for the families concerned – but is almost certainly correct in the circumstances.

That is a painful thing to say and will understandably not be well received by the affected families, who have been allowed to cling to the hope of recovery since the very first day of the tragedy. I fully understand that, and am by no means confident that I would think any differently were I in their position.

Whatever way one views it, Pike River has been an unmitigated tragedy at every level in the needless loss of the lives of the 29 miners, the prevarication and obfuscation in the immediate aftermath of the explosions, the revelations about the company’s lax management and safety standards, and the too many false dawns of hope the grieving families have been given. It is far too much expect decent people to bear, yet they have done so with remarkable bravery and stoic dignity. But, sadly, now it is time to move on.

The latest edition of the New Zealand Geographic magazine captures the situation starkly and well in its article “The Uncompromising Chemistry of Tragedy”. In a dispassionate way, it describes the chemical reactions that occurred at the time of the explosions, the immediate impact they would have had on the miners, and the risks and level of the buildup of methane gases in the mineshaft. It makes it all too clear how forlorn the hope of recovery would be in a virtual incinerator. It is compelling reading.

At a broader level, the article makes it clear that the way in which the families were treated immediately afterwards, while probably intended as sympathetic, in fact created a situation where precisely the opposite has been the case. The hope given to the families from the outset has now been shown to have been false – and to have been so from day one. Hope can often be a powerful stimulant, but false hope is never more than a cruel hoax.

So, where to from here to give the families the sense of closure and solace they have been seeking and deserve? I suggest that the formal designation of the mine site and its surrounds as a recognised grave site and memorial to the memory of the men would be appropriate.

The Pike River families have paid a dreadful price for their men’s careers. One way of helping them move forward would be to stop the litanies of false hopes and half truths they have been subjected to over recent years. Formally declaring the mine site as an official grave site is a way we can recognise that while their men are not coming back they are being allowed to rest in peace, with the dignity and respect that they deserve.