Auditor-General report: Our right to know is being treated with contempt

 The Listener / 10 August, 2017

Fraudster Joanne Harrison. Photo/TVNZ

The committee in charge should thank their lucky stars – and Metiria Turei – for this week’s distractions.

The seven MPs on the cross-party Officers of Parliament Committee should be down on their knees giving thanks for the recent political tumult. Had the media not been transfixed by the galvanic election of a new Labour Party leader and the catastrophic backfiring of Greens co-leader Metiria Turei’s confession of benefit fraud, it’s a fair bet that far more would have been made of the scandalous circumstances in which the country learnt of the resignation of Auditor-General Martin Matthews.

 

The watchdog role of Auditor-General is central in New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements. It’s technically a non-political appointment – made by and accountable to Parliament – and the job calls for someone with an unimpeachable reputation, which is why Matthews’ appointment last February raised eyebrows. His competence was seriously in doubt following an audacious $723,000 fraud perpetrated under his watch at the Ministry of Transport by senior manager Joanne Harrison, now serving a jail term. Official documents have shown that repeated warning signs about Harrison’s behaviour, including advice from Australian police who had experience of her, went ignored while Matthews was the ministry’s chief executive. Worse still, whistleblowers in the ministry who drew attention to irregularities were manoeuvred out of their jobs in a restructuring in which Harrison herself had a hand.

Matthews was advised as early as 2013 that staff had suspicions about Harrison, but it wasn’t until 2016 that he called in the Serious Fraud Office. Despite knowing all this, the Officers of Parliament Committee recommended Matthews’ appointment as Auditor-General last November.

Clearly, the committee chose the wrong person. That decision in itself cries out for an explanation. But just how wrong they got it, and why, may never be known, because the committee decided not to release the result of the inquiry by former top public servant Sir Maarten Wevers. It justified this decision on the basis that immediately before the report was due for release, Matthews – who had stood aside while Wevers conducted his inquiry – announced his resignation. In a brief statement, the committee said there was no longer any need to reveal what Wevers had found. All done and dusted, then. Nothing to see here, folks. Move on.

How convenient. The committee’s culpability in the fiasco therefore escapes public scrutiny. And that’s just the start of it, because the farrago of contradictions, inconsistencies and prevarications surrounding the decision to withhold the report can only create further public suspicion.

The public is entitled to know, for example, why Matthews insisted in March that he had acted correctly, yet in the statement announcing his resignation admitted his position was “untenable”. What could be in the report that caused him to change his position? Why was the supposedly unanimous decision to withhold the Wevers report subsequently criticised by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and Labour MP Sue Moroney, both of whose parties were represented on the committee? And what is the public to make of claims that a deal was hatched whereby Matthews agree to go quietly in return for the report being suppressed?

It’s not just Wevers’ report we’re entitled to see, but Matthews’ point-by-point response, including rebuttal, which has also been suppressed. Not only would this give the public a fairer basis on which to judge both the decision to appoint him and his subsequent decision to resign, but it would give some much-needed insight into how fraudster Harrison managed to pull the wool over senior colleagues’ eyes for so long.

Nobody comes out of this looking good, but it’s possible the very secrecy Parliament’s Speaker has enforced makes everybody look worse than they need to. Was the decision to rethink the appointment more a matter of “optics” or a question of damning new information? It is unfair on everyone concerned that we do not know. The Speaker’s argument that, technically, both Wevers’ and Matthews’ reports are still only drafts and, because of the resignation, they need never be finished is a risible excuse for continued secrecy.

It’s still murky. That’s the problem with suppression. Any of the rumours and speculation now swirling around the Wevers report may be true. Then again, it’s possible none of them are. The trouble is we don’t know – but we are entitled to know, because it’s a matter of maintaining confidence in the integrity of the public service.

The committee has behaved with arrogance and contempt for the public’s right to know. The shameful saga shows up once again the inadequacies of the Official Information Act, which is toothless at the best of times and utterly impotent as a means of holding Parliament accountable. MPs carefully placed themselves out of its reach when the Act was passed in 1981 and have remained staunch in their determination to resist calls for them to be brought within its purview.

Not for them the principles of transparency and accountability that they apply to everyone else. If New Zealand is to retain its first-equal ranking – with Denmark – on Transparency International’s league table, we will have to do a lot better than this.

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.