How the Government politicised its "no surprises" policy
By Richard Harman (author)
The Peters super affair has now turned into a potentially damaging own goal by the Naitonal Government.
Last night there seemed to be three questions:
- Why did Social Welfare Minister Anne Tolley hold a second meeting to discuss Peters’ private pension details when the first clearly breached the Privacy Act.
- Why did the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, Wayne Eagleson, not brief the Prime Minister on the matter and why did he not counsel Tolley not to hold the second meeting.
- Why did the State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes, State Services Minister Paula Bennett on the matter?
There are other questions about the role of the head of the Ministry of Social Development, Brendon Boyle, and the way he interpreted the No Surprises policy.
Alongside this, the question of who leaked the details of Peters' pension to the media seems a relatively minor matter.
As one former Prime Ministerial press secretary said, the currency of the Beehive is gossip, and once explosive information like the details of Peters' overpaid pension was inside the system, it was inevitable that it would find its way to the media.
Though those close to National's campaign were yesterday putting a brave face on events as they unfolded, others (including some in the Caucus) were convinced that the revelations about who knew what about Peters and his pension could substantially damage the campaign.
That view was predictably shared by Labour.
However, there were also those who felt the whole thing was a "beltway' issue of interest only to political junkies in Wellington.
But the real reverberations of this might be felt within National after the election if it fails to form a Government.
There could be a call for heads to roll and certainly Tolley and even possibly English himself could find themselves facing some tough scrutiny.
National had hoped this week would see them make inroads into the NZ First provincial vote.
That bid by NZ First for country votes was underlined yesterday with the release of its party list.
Its highest ranked new candidate is Mark Patterson, a Lawrence sheep farmer and former National Party member. He is in position seven on the list with former Labour Minister Shane Jones in eight.
Jones has been telling election meetings that NZ First is "the" country party.
Patterson told POLITIK last night that he thought his position was a real statement of intent by NZ First with respect to the provincial vote.
“Obviously we’ve been targeting that section of the country,” he said.
"We've got some real policies, but people also feel that they need some people there who are from those areas ."
National is facing a fight for its core rural and provincial vote, and it's no co-incidence that Prime Minister Bill English will spend today in the Waikato with a series of rural-related visits and announcements.
But the Peters revelations threaten to undermine that campaign.
At the heart of the questions about the various Ministers’ actions is a question about the so-called “No Surprises” policy which appears to have become politicised under this Government.
State Services Commission Peter Hughes yesterday defined the No Surprises policy as requiring “departments to inform Ministers promptly of matters of significance within their portfolio responsibilities, particularly where these matters may be controversial or may become the subject of public debate.”
In the past, this has not been interpreted to mean that departments should pass on personal information which might be of political interest to the Minister.
In 2011 when then-Labour MP Darren Hughes was under investigation over an incident involving a young man in Hughes’ bed, the news leaked out.
But Police Minister Judith Collins specifically said she had not been briefed on the matter.
There is a concern that since then the public service has become increasingly more politicised.
In a recent column in The Dominion Post, Dr Chris Eichbaum a Reader in Government at Victoria University of Wellington, revealed preliminary results of a survey which showed that nearly of the 640 public servants surveyed agreed with the statement: “Public servants in 2017 are less likely to provide a minister with comprehensive and free and frank advice".
Eichbaum cited the way Official Information Act requests are dealt with as an example of this where now almost all requests received by departments are referred to political advisors in Ministerial offices for decision on whether to release the information.
It is this culture of applying a partisan political template across everything a Minister does, and the apparent willingness of senior public servants to go along with it, which makes possible the kind of inter-action that occurred between Social Development Minister, Anne Tolley and her departmental Chief Executive, Brendon Boyle.
Once the information is in the Beehive, it very rarely remains there.
There are now three inquiries underway to try and establish who may have leaked the information.
But a wide variety of former Ministers and senior public servants and current MPs and academics said the information should never have been passed on in the first place.
Hughes said that his advice to Boyle was that “ should deal with Mr Peters' case in line with the agency's standard policies and procedures, in the same way as would happen for any other New Zealander.
“I am assured that is what happened.
“Briefings were provided to the Minister of Social Development by MSD, and to the Minister of State Services by SSC.
“No briefings were given to Ministers until after all decisions were made.
“That ensured there could not have been inappropriate involvement in operational decisions, while allowing Ministers to be aware of significant matters in their portfolio.
“There was an expectation that these matters would be held in confidence by Ministers.
“When these briefings were given they contained very limited details. “
But the Prime Minister issued his own statement an hour after Hughes.
And his views on whether it had been appropriate for Boyle to brief the Minister were different.
“Chief Executives make the decision on what to advise the Minister under the no surprises policy," he said.
“They do this carefully and in good faith.
“On this occasion, however, given the personal and confidential nature of the information, it would have been better for the Ministers not to have been advised.”
English’s statement fails to address the fact that Tolley got two briefings --- which indicates that she did not share his view that it would have been better if she had not been briefed at all.
There are those within National who believe that it is on that basis that she should face some censure, possibly even being stood down while the investigations continue.
Much now depends on how Peters plays the issue, but whatever happens, it is hardly likely to enhance his already frosty relationship with English nor can it be likely to enhance Naitonal's poll ratings.