• Blame the Officials

    Murray McCully draws a substantial salary as a Minister and seems to enjoy the prestige and perks that come with being New Zealand’s Foreign Minister. He doesn’t seem quite so keen on facing up to his responsibilities.

    What is admitted by all parties to have been a pretty substantial mishandling by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the saga involving a Malaysian diplomat and the criminal behaviour that he is alleged to have committed against a New Zealand woman is not, it seems, something for which Mr McCully accepts responsibility. We are led to understand that he saw no need to do more than to blame his officials.

    Yet his job, under our system of parliamentary government, is to be accountable to parliament for the performance – and failures – of his department. Those failures, on this occasion, have put at risk the justice that a New Zealand victim of a serious crime is entitled to expect from our courts and have jeopardised the good relations we have enjoyed with a Commonwealth partner.

    Mr McCully, of course, has – as they say – “form” on this issue. He has a record not only of sliding out from under his responsibility to parliament but for denying the whole doctrine of ministerial responsibility on which our system of government is based.

    Back in 2012, having appointed a Chief Executive who knew literally nothing of diplomacy and with the explicit goals of re-shaping the Ministry so as to save up to $40 million, he had declared his intention to replace diplomats with businessmen and proposed to remove from those who remained the job security that would be essential if their services were to be retained.

    He authorised the spending of $9.2 million on a “cost-saving” plan – money spent mainly on outside consultants, reflecting his apparent belief that expertise in diplomacy counted for little and that his Ministry was incapable of reforming itself.

    But when the disastrous nature of the plan became apparent, and the threat to New Zealand’s trade and foreign relations too serious to be ignored, the Minister ran for cover. It was only then that we were assured that the plan had all along been Chief Executive John Allen’s idea, and that the Minister had been so disengaged that he had barely noticed what was going on.

    He went further, elevating the whole doctrine of what we must now call “Ministerial irresponsibility” to new heights – or depths. He solemnly proclaimed that, as Minister, he was no more than “the purchaser of the Ministry’s services” – an astonishing new take on what the role of a Minister is and should be, and betraying a shocking ignorance of what parliamentary government is about.

    On this view, Ministers would be merely shoppers in the market place – looking for the best bargain, weighing up where they can get the best deal. Their departments would be simply just another possible provider, no longer part of government or of what might reasonably be called the public service; they would be autonomous bodies –free agents, not subject to Ministerial direction – competing, like any other provider, for the Minister’s attention and custom.

    This doctrine, if accepted, would be yet another step towards unaccountable government by the executive. We are already a long way down that track – in effect, governed by “TeamKey” – an entity that apparently expects to treat parliament as simply a rubber stamp.

    The duty owed by our MPs is increasingly seen as not to their constituents through parliament but to their political parties – as witness the surprise and criticism that greeted the decision by two Labour MPs to vote against their party on the issue of the logging of native trees that had fallen in the recent storms because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that this was in their constituents’ interests.

    I know from my own experience that an MP feels many claims on his or her allegiance. Each new decision is likely to require the reconciliation of the often conflicting interests of the voters who sent the MP to parliament and of the political party to which the MP belongs – and that is to say nothing of the values and views that are held by the MP himself or herself.

    Under the McCully doctrine, however, parliament and the voters count for little. The main responsibility undertaken by Ministers in respect of accountability is apparently to suppress public discussion on difficult issues and to negotiate the questions put by the media so as to limit any adverse fallout for their party. Public officials, in line with the general devaluing of the public service as a whole, are convenient sacrificial lambs if things go wrong.

    We can see how far this doctrine might take us in another little episode that is likely to involve Murray McCully. John Key admits to “considering” whether or not Murray McCully should contest his East Coast Bays seat or should step aside in favour of the Conservative Party.

    Any bets on whether our Foreign Minister will decide to stick by his loyal constituents, or will abandon them in order to serve the interests of TeamKey?

    Bryan Gould

    3 July 2014


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