ODT Editorial: The whistleblowing farce

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New Zealand’s whistleblowing legislation (the Protected Disclosures Act) is an abject failure. That is not just because it is outdated, as some would claim. It was inadequate from its inception in 2000.

The debacle at the Ministry of Transport – where whistleblowers were victimised – is a sorry saga which reflects badly on the Government and the State Service and undermines trust.

Why, in the first place, was such a deficient law passed? Why, as has been revealed, is the legislation, limitations and all, not understood or monitored in many government departments?

In part, New Zealand politicians and public servants are complacent about corruption and fraud. They would rather leave their heads in the sand. In part, too, governments and departments are more concerned with possible embarrassment and protecting their own rather than safeguarding integrity. Bureaucratic inertia plays a role as well.

The Ministry of Transport saga again proves the pillars of democracy are as vital as ever.

Despite the blatant manipulation and lies from a senior Ministry of Transport manager, Joanne Harrison, now in jail for a $725,000 fraud, and despite several blasts on whistles from department staff, concerns were brushed aside, so it seems, over two or three years. Those who complained were targeted.

It took opposition MP Sue Moroney to take up the cause. Strong and free oppositions are integral to effective democracy.

But then, as Ms Moroney describes it, the State Services Commissioner declined to take up the case. It was only pestering through the media that prompted his investigation. A free media is essential in a free society. Its watchdog/backstop role should never be underestimated.

The powerful welcome its emasculation. Often large swathes of the public are happy to see it curtailed as well, not truly understanding its importance. Turkey and Poland, becoming more and more authoritarian, and with wide support, show how susceptible the public can be. There are also plenty of examples, albeit on narrower scales, in the West and in this country’s history. It does not seem to matter whether from the Left or the Right; in the name of the cause, including in pursuit of ”social justice”, free speech is strangled.

Recent abuse of the Official Information Act is a symptom of the growing political nature of the so-called public service, and the worst instances are disgraceful. It is an indictment of a trend that began under the previous Labour government and has become much worse. Proper processes and openness are vital safeguards. It will not be just the one ministry off the rails.

Ombudsman Peter Boshier, one anchor of the defences in our system, has said the Protected Disclosures Act needs ”a shot of adrenaline”. He has also voiced concerns about official responses outside the wording and/or the spirit of the Official Information Act.

Another key ”independent” public official is the Auditor-general, Martin Matthews. But he was chief executive of the Ministry of Transport at the time of the fraudster and the whistleblowing.

A report into his actions or lack or actions is due to be released any day. Surely, especially as a former assistant auditor-general, he should have been alert and appropriately responsive to the complaints, and have had an effective process in place.

Even State Services Minister Paula Bennett acknowledges the inadequacies of the Protected Disclosures Act. How could she not after the damming Ministry of Transport report.

What she and the Government, or a new government after September 23, must do urgently is completely change the Act. The threshold for reporting suspicions up the line must be lower and, crucially, there should be disclosure options through MPs and the media, however hard that is for the Government to stomach.