Auditor General's position weakens
By Richard Harman (author)
Beleaguered Auditor General Martin Matthews has approached all the party leaders in Parliament seeking to brief them about the way he handled the Joanne Harrison affair when he was Secretary of Transport.
But in an indication of how weak his position is becoming, two leaders have refused to meet him.
Harrison has been convicted of fraud which occurred while Matthews was at the Ministry which in turn has given rise to questions about Matthews’ management practices.
NZ First Leader Winston Peters has refused to meet him and says he wants a full independent investigation.
“I will not be negotiating with Mr Matthews, particularly when he communicated to the media that he had approached us,” he said.
“The media knew about it before I had read the email.”
(POLITIK did not learn about the approach from Matthews but from other MPs.)
However, Labour Leader Andrew Little has written to the Speaker also declining to meet Matthews , instead saying the Speaker should review the appointment in the light of new information which has come to hand.
"There is a question about whether the appointment panel (the Officers of Parliament Committee) had access to that information," he said.
"And if they didn't, then I think they've got to review the appointment and ask themselves whether - if they'd had that information - they might have made a different decision."
Little has to walk carefully on this issue because not only is he dealing with someone who potentially could be Auditor General under a Labour Government, but Matthews is close to some Labour MPs.
Peters is also saying more information has now come to light which means the appointment should be considered.
The Government’s position is that both the Serious Fraud Office and the State Services Commission were aware for most of last year what was happening at the Ministry of Transport and both cleared Matthews of any improper behaviour.
But privately Ministers are becoming concerned that the issue could get out of control.
POLITIK understands that for that reason it was “the ninth floor” (The Prime Minister’s Office) who suggested Matthews approach the leaders.
The Government is in an awkward position because it is a convention that the Auditor General is a consensus appointment supported by all parties in Parliament.
And as the Prime Minister indicated during Question Time yesterday the Government technically plays no role in the Auditor General’s appointment.
“The Auditor-General is the servant of Parliament, not the Government,” he said.
“That has always been the case because the role of the Auditor-General is to independently scrutinise the activities of the executive.
“Whatever issues have been either raised or dealt with, or should have been, in the process that Parliament followed in appointing the Auditor-General. It would be quite inappropriate for the Government to take a position on that process, because it is a parliamentary process.”
The case against Matthews boils down to these issues:
- That Harrison should never have been appointed in the first place given that she was named as a fraud suspect in Australia at rural water corporation Goulburn-Murray Water (GMW) in Victoria in 2011. (Some details of this may have been suppressed at the time.)
- He appears to have disregarded concerns about Harrison’s fraudulent invoices which were raised by staff well before April 2016, when the Serious Fraud Office began its investigation.
- Three staff who raised concerns were “restructured’ and lost their jobs, according to Labour MP, Sue Moroney.
- And yesterday Peters claimed Matthews had authorised Harrison to be a part of an investigation into workplace harassment at the Department of Conservation one month before he called the Serious Fraud Office in.