Gordon Campbell on (not) taking responsibility, terrorism porn, and Dylan’s 76th birthday

So Martin Matthews, our current Auditor-General wishes he could have detected “earlier” the fraud that occurred on his watch at the Ministry of Transport. Hmmm. But he could have detected it earlier, surely? That’s the point. Reportedly, some junior members of his staff had been trying to tell him and his senior colleagues in management for years about the fraudulent actions of Joanne Harrison.

As far back as 2013, staff at the Transport Ministry were alerting Mr Matthews to what they regarded as Harrison’s astounding behaviour. She created fake companies and paid them for work that was never done and refused to cooperate with an internal investigation.

It was not until Mr Matthews received an external tip in 2016 – that Harrison was a convicted fraudster – that he clicked.

Not only were those internal alerts apparently ignored. Some of the whistle blowers were allegedly punished by losing their jobs, as Harrison and her colleagues in management took revenge on them:

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes is now considering launching an inquiry into claims by whistleblowers that Harrison forced them out in a restructure.

There is no sign that Matthews has taken responsibility for the persistence of a culture at MoT where fraudulent behaviour at senior management level was able to endure – and was denied – for so long. Instead, warning signs were ignored as management chose to live in denial and declined to act appropriately against someone seen to be one of their own. Such culpable incompetence seems to have been richly rewarded. For example, the SSC’s latest Senior Pay Report (p.12) shows that the chief executive at MoT was paid between $400,000-410,000 in the 2014/2015 year, with that figure rising to $470-479,000 in the year 2015/2016, with a footnote to the effect that entitlements to the value of $91,151 were paid on the last day of duty.

Matthews is now the Auditor-General. The Office of the Auditor-General’s website describes Matthew’s new job in these terms:

Our work gives Parliament, public entities, and the public independent assurance that public entities are operating, and accounting for their performance, in keeping with Parliament’s intentions.

On the same website under its “reporting fraud” section the A-G lists the raw numbers of fraud detected, and it also interestingly, cites the “methods and reasons” for the frauds carried out. All of the examples detected in 2015/16 – which covers the detection period of Harrison’s actions – fall into the categories of “ didn’t think they would be caught” and/or “policies or procedures were not followed.” Either – or both – reasons would seem damning of Matthews’ stewardship, and would be inconsistent with the A-G’s central role of giving “Parliament, public entities and the public independent assurance” that all is ship shape, and operating in accord with Parliament’s intentions.

Talking of Parliament… would Parliament have been quite as willing to endorse Matthews’ appointment as Auditor-General if it had known the full extent of what had gone down on Matthews’ watch at MoT? That seems unlikely. Winston Peters for one, doesn’t think so. Yet in a process that looks uncannily similar to what shielded Harrison for so long, the system is now moving to its default position again, and is defending its own.

According to Speaker David Carter, Matthews’ conduct has been described as “exemplary” – but as the Serious Fraud Office has carefully pointed out, it applied that term to describe Matthews’ behaviour in the period after the Harrison fraud had been publicly disclosed. I’m sure that many people behaved in an exemplary fashion after the Titanic hit the iceberg, too; but surely, the well paid heads of government departments are supposed to detect the icebergs beforehand, and not live in denial about their existence until the point where the ship they command has begun to list and take on water.

Still… all the current signs are that the status quo will be allowed to endure, and public faith in one of our main checks and balances – ie, the post of Auditor-General – will suffer accordingly. Finally, the indulgence granted to senior executives is in stark contrast to the 90 day employment rules that operate elsewhere in the labour market. If you’re being paid say, $30,000 a year, you’re out on your ear if you under-perform. Yet if you’re being paid more than 15 times that amount to lead a government department, you are not held responsible for systemic failings that flourish on your watch. If you’re lucky, you could even be promoted to a position of greater responsibility.

Terrorism porn

Yes, it is terrible when terrorists kill the innocent, and especially heinous when children are targeted. But the wall to wall media coverage of the Manchester bombing, the repeated airings of the explosion clip and related screams, and the use made of Manchester for spinoff homilies of virtue – taxi drivers and Uber drivers gave people rides home according to John Campbell “because “it was the right thing to do” – has been utterly repulsive.

Apparently, this writer for Foreign Policy magazine, and a former Mancunian, felt much the same. People responded well afterwards. People do:

The vast majority of the time, disaster brings out the best in people, wherever and whomever they are. They’d have done the same in Sheffield, and we’d all be talking about the stoic hospitality of Yorkshire folk. When something terrible happens, we instinctively move to find a connection with it: I was there three months ago, my parents are from there, my best friend moved there. There are ways in which this is an understandable, even noble instinct, one that can help us be a little better to each other or let us express our love for each other.

But there is a downside:

….These grandiose claims about Manchester and our solidarity with it are dangerous cant. They trick us into thinking we have skin in the game. Terrorism in the West, sporadic and horrible as it is, is designed to hit our heartstrings, to pull us into grand narratives and make us feel that, yes, we could be next. We invoke epic struggles instead of treating terrorists as the sad, petty little men they are and so grant them the very status they want as soldiers in a grand struggle. The language of solidarity inevitably feeds into the images of wartime; as soon as London was hit in 2005, the language of the Blitz was everywhere. But ordinary people in the West are not at war, however much lunatics and criminals want us to be. Fewer than 200 people a year are killed by terrorism in the West. (In contrast, more than 50,000 Americans alone died of drug overdoses last year, more than 40,000 in auto accidents, and more than 1,000 from falling down the stairs.)

The novelty of terrorism is its randomness. At an Ariana Grande concert? But the coverage… terrorism provides the media with a geyser of raw emotion and vicarious horror. It offers politicians an opportunity to sound resolute and defiant – and protective of the same citizenry whose needs they resolutely ignore (or exacerbate) on every other day of the week. At a wider level, terrorism offers politicians a useful bogeyman. There is something obscene about the US President banging on endlessly about the threat posed by Islamic State – a rapidly declining band of maybe 15,000 fighters at most – when the White House commands a military machine of awesome capability, with hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on it annually. With these odds, its pretty easy for the likes of Theresa May to proclaim that the terrorists will not prevail. Well, there are far more pressing threats to public wellbeing. It would be nice if the media – and those in power – paid them the same attention.

Happy birthday, Bob

Well, as Bob Dylan once said about the Ministry of Transport, there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all. Today is Bob Dylan’s 76th birthday. Obviously, it would be foolhardy to try to designate a ‘best’ Dylan song and vocal, but this track – recorded in January 1965 during the Bringing It All Back Home sessions and officially unreleased until the mid 1980s – has long been a personal favourite. Besides the great vocal, it has a singular atmosphere and generosity of spirit. ‘How long can you search babe, for what is not lost?’ And besides: “Everybody will help you, some people are very kind… but if I can save you any time (anytime?) come on give it to me, I’ll keep it with mine…” We share our time, we look out for each other, undulled by the cycle of repetition. Yep, it’s a love song.