Editorial: Time for another look at the fraudster in the bureaucracy

Former MoT boss Martin Matthews says he acted "swiftly and decisively" to investigate Joanne Harrison.
CRAIG SIMCOX/FAIRFAX NZ

Former MoT boss Martin Matthews says he acted "swiftly and decisively" to investigate Joanne Harrison.

EDITORIAL: The political pressure is building on Auditor-General Martin Matthews. Questions persist over his handling of the fraudster Joanne Harrison while he was head of the Ministry of Transport. Doing nothing no longer seems possible.

A call by Winston Peters for Matthews' resignation is nothing special or unexpected, but there are growing doubts within Labour and the Greens as well.  It is most unfortunate that Matthews, who holds a position of special constitutional responsibility and whose appointment must be endorsed by parliament, has run into serious parliamentary flak.

Labour leader Andrew Little says information about the case has arisen which was not available to the panel of MPs who interviewed Matthews for the auditor-general's job. Little won't say, however, if Labour would have voted against Matthews' appointment if it had known the full story.

This is not a very clear position and the suspicion must arise that opposition politicians are using the case to embarrass the Government during the election campaign. For that reason, and also because the appointment of the Auditor-General is an important one that should not be lightly overturned, there is now a need for caution and cool heads.

One sensible move would be to ask the State Services Commission to have an inquiry into the matter. There would be no need for Matthews to step down while that inquiry is done, as Peters demands. The questions about Matthews' conduct remain open and suspending him would be going too far.

As former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer says, the auditor-general should be protected from political pressures. That does not mean he should be immune from all inquiry.

Prime Minister Bill English says he doesn't know all the details of the case, but it had been dealt with satisfactorily and this showed the system was able to pick up problems. This is misleading. Questions remain about whether Matthews took enough notice, and promptly enough, of the warning bells reportedly sounded by more than one whistleblower in the department.

So nobody can be sure that the  case has been dealt with "satisfactorily".

That is why an inquiry by the State Services Commission, taking into account all the latest revelations, seems to be the best course. Nobody could accuse the SSC of any kind of party-political witch-hunt. On the other hand, the SSC is one of the state's major bulwarks against corruption and bureaucratic inertia or failure.

It could be entrusted with the job of looking into this case. If State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes judges that an arm's length inquiry might be better, he could appoint an independent person or panel to do it.

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Any bureaucracy will occasionally have to deal with fraudsters like Joanne Harrison. What the public needs to know is that the system has the necessary checks and balances to make sure they are quickly detected and punished. We are still not sure that this happened with Harrison.

 - Stuff

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