Unfortunately, the brave and damning report by Ombudsman Ron Paterson on the “flawed” and “unfair” inquiry conducted by Dame Paula Rebstock into events at MFAT pulls back the veil on a far wider issue.
Whenever the government announces an inquiry into a contentious matter, those reviews now routinely function as a tool of political management that’s been tailored to achieve a pre-determined outcome. Such inquiries have neither been set up nor are expected to result in a balanced re-appraisal of all the relevant issues. To that end, the terms of reference are usually conveniently narrow, and selective – and thus allow for the evidence to be then cherry-picked in line with the government’s desires and expectations.
In the MFAT case, the core problem seems to have been that Rebstock unfairly linked two unrelated questions (a) who had been involved in opposition to how “change management” processes being conducted within MFAT at the time, and (b) who had leaked confidential Cabinet information about those changes to Labour’s Phil Goff. Ultimately, the Rebstock review blamed the leak on the critics of the change process. It fingered two un-named but identifiable MFAT senior managers as the likely source of the leak, and did so less on proven fact than on selected circumstantial evidence, suspicion and speculation. Finally, a patently inadequate right of response was allowed before those findings were publicly released.
The fallout is likely to cost the taxpayer a bundle, on top of the circa $500,000 shelled out for Rebstock’s botched inquiry. The taxpayer will also presumably be on the hook for a compensation payout to the two former MFAT officials concerned who – according to the Ombudsman – suffered ‘substantial damage’ to their reputations thanks to the actions of Rebstock, and the related failures of oversight by State Services Commissioner, Ian Rennie. That compensation bill could run into six figure sums for both the individuals maligned. Regardless, Prime Minister John Key is not ruling out using Rebstock again, in similar inquiries.
The Rebstock inquiry was only one element in the ferment occurring within MFAT at the time. Back in 2012, the change process had already morphed into a virtual witch-hunt against anyone seen to be opposing the will and wishes of Foreign Minister Murray McCully. It wasn’t to be the last example of duck shoving and scapegoating at MFAT on McCully’s watch. The inquiry into the handling of the Malaysian diplomat case for instance, was widely criticized because its terms of reference had carefully exempted McCully and Prime Minister John Key from any scrutiny or responsibility:
The inquiry into the Government’s mistakes in its handling of the alleged sex case involving a Malaysian diplomat is being denounced for not specifically putting the roles of Foreign Minister Murray McCully and Prime Minister John Key under the microscope.
The Rebstock-led Welfare Working Group that culminated in the social welfare reforms was similarly criticized for its highly selective terms of reference:
From day one, the exercise has hardly been a wide-ranging or rigorous investigation. The WWG chose to fixate on a symptom (welfare dependency) selected a cause from its ideological kitbag (an alleged lack of personal motivation and of strong incentives to seek work) and shaped its policy recommendations to suit… So far, the WWG’s investigations have not involved any substantial analysis of:
(a) the extent of poverty among beneficiaries and low income workers and its effects
(b) whether benefit levels can sustain basic living standards vis a vis rising costs, and the related health outcomes, particularly among children.
(c) the cost and optimum form of work and training schemes for the young unemployed.
(d) the availability and affordability of childcare, region by region
(e) the global recession’s impact on the job market
(f) the adequacy of the government’s current job creation policy.
(g) the job outcomes attributable to the government’s stimulus policy during the recession.
(h) changing social attitude to marriage breakdown and divorce, and the implications for DPB figures.
(i) the social and economic value – including opportunity cost – of parenting carried out by DPB recipients
(j) the net cost of work schemes as opposed to the health costs and law and order costs that are unemployment -related
(k) the extent to which demographic factors such as the ageing population are being reflected in the sickness and invalid benefit numbers…etc etc.
And yet again… the inquiry by an ‘independent” expert panel headed by Rebstock into the Child Youth and Family Service has provided a convenient rationale for sweeping reforms of CYFS – these reforms will include outsourcing and privatisation – despite similar complaints about the highly selective approach that had been taken. Poverty and income inequality for instance, barely rated a mention in the Rebstock panel’s review process that, in effect, located the failings in the attitudes of the individuals concerned, rather than in any failings by government:
Despite the often unspoken reality that the vast majority of return visit CYFS clients are poor, and that people on reasonable incomes seldom have long-term contact with CYFS, it seems that the authors of the report do not see poverty as having any great relevance to the business of CYFS. Given the truly astounding amount of data demonstrating clear links between poverty, deprivation and increased levels of neglect and abuse of children it seems an extraordinary oversight….
Yes, one can readily see why the government would not want to lose Paula Rebstock – who has proved so useful in the past – from future tours of duty in the public service trenches, to the benefit of her parliamentary masters. Meanwhile, the public will continue to treat the term “official inquiry” as a synonym for “white-wash.” Few will be surprised for example, if the Shewan inquiry into our tax haven status similarly concludes that… hey, don’t think twice, its alright.
Tangled Up In Being Sued
Talking of Bob Dylan, here’s one of his prettiest love songs. Today, the lyrics seem to have added resonance. ‘In the dime-stores and bus stations, people talk of situations/read books repeat quotations, draw conclusions on the wall…She knows too much to argue or to judge…she knows there’s no success like failure, and that [her] failure’s no success at all…’ Wow. Who knew that this could be a song about Paula Rebstock?