Opinion: Secrecy over Auditor-General saga staggering and appalling

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What an egregious abuse of power by the Officers of Parliament Committee (OPC) yesterday over the Martin Matthews-Joanne Harrison affair. 

As is now well known, Martin Matthews was the Auditor-General (AG) until yesterday. Joanne Harrison used to work for him at the Ministry of Transport until she ripped off $725,000 through fraud.

Harrison is now in jail. But it seems to have been decided that Matthews was slack in his oversight of her at the MOT. 

Martin Matthews was the Ministry of Transport boss when Joanne Harrison was hired, before she ripped off more than $700,000.
Source: 1 NEWS

After an investigation by senior public servant Sir Martin Weevers, Mr Matthews has quit his new job as Auditor General - one which he was appointed to only on February 1st this year - because of that slackness. 

He apparently was told numerous times that Harrison was a fraudster, but he did nothing.

Yesterday, when Mr Matthews resigned early in the afternoon, media understood  the Sir Martin's report would be made public at 2pm.

Then, incredibly, it was decreed that as Mr Matthews had resigned that was the end of the matter.  There would be no further comment, and no release of the Weevers report.

This is outrageous, extraordinary, staggering, appalling... and whatever words you want to use to get yourself into a state of the highest dudgeon.

It’s also highly suspicious and leaves way more questions still to be answered about the whole affair.

First, some background on the little known OPC.

It’s a cross party select committee, chaired by the Speaker, the job of which is to appoint the three Officers of Parliament - the Ombudsman, the Auditor-General and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Apart from Speaker David Carter, the other members currently are Trevor Mallard and Carmel Sepuloni of Labour, David Clendon from the Greens, Te Ururoa Flavell of the Maori Party, Jamie-Lee Ross of National and New Zealand First’s Barbara Stewart.

Last year, when Martin Matthews was recommended for the AG job, Tim Macindoe was the National party representative.

Between March 17 and November 3 last year, the OPC met to consider the appointment of a new Auditor-General. A sub-committee of Mr Carter, Mr Mallard, Mr Macindoe and Mrs Stewart was formed to “manage the appointment” and it then employed a recruitment adviser to “assist with the process”.

In July last year, news of Joanne Harrison’s fraud broke. The OPC, the appointment sub-committee and the recruitment adviser must have all known about it.

They still appointed Martin Matthews. In fact, Mr Mallard talking in Parliament about the recommendation to appoint Mr Matthews on November 17 last year, said  the Harrison matter was “an elephant in the room”.

He also said in the same speech that “members of the committee looked into this very carefully and were well briefed on the issue and came to the conclusion that Mr Matthews' handling of the matter was described to us as having been exemplary”. (My emphasis)

So some questions about that statement in Parliament last November.

Who did the OPC or the recruitment adviser get their briefing from on the Harrison issue at the MOT?

Who described Mr Matthews handling of the matter as exemplary?

Did the OPC or recruitment agency ask Mr Matthews if he’d been warned about Harrison?

Did the OPC or recruitment agency make any effort to contact or interview any other MOT staff about Joanne Harrison, or about Mr Matthews' handling of the affair ?

There were so many red flags flying on this matter last year, the OPC must have been blind not to see them and ask some serious questions. It appears they did not.

So that’s stage one.

Stage two starts when Labour MP Sue Moroney, after being rebuffed on numerous occasions, finally gets the State Services Commissioner interested in the matter. Sir Martin is called in to investigate.

What he delivered obviously made Mr Matthews' position untenable, and Mr Matthews quickly resigned.

But why is Sir Martin's report now consigned to secrecy just because the OPC says so?

It cannot be accessed under the Official Information Act because Parliament is not subject to the OIA.

But don’t the public have a right to know just what went so badly wrong in the appointment and recruitment process last year?

This is an appointment to one of the important jobs in the country, and it was royally stuffed up because the right questions were not asked of the right people last year.

I suspect Sir Martin has discovered this during his investigation, and has made some pointed comments to the OPC about how they got it so badly wrong. 

The OPC, under the chairmanship of the Speaker, has decided it does not need to have its blushes and inadequacies exposed in public - so it has shut the shop.

Under law, we can do nothing except be outraged.

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