OPINION: Education Minister Hekia Parata has made an extraordinary shambles of the kohanga reo affair. One day she sets out to reassure "the taxpayers of New Zealand" that the funding is fine. A day later she hands the issue to the Serious Fraud Office. She blames the Kohanga Reo Trust, and certainly the trust has serious questions to answer. But in the end she can blame nobody but herself.
She commissioned a report which, amazingly, did not even consider the allegations of misspending that sparked the whole scandal. Maori Television's revelations about credit cards and wedding dresses and dubious koha payments went unanswered. These allegations, the minister blustered, weren't within the inquiry's terms of reference. This is the stuff of farce.
Ms Parata also said, in effect, that the Government had no right to investigate the Kohanga Reo subsidiary, Te Pataka Ohanga, because it received no public money. This was simply wrong, and suggests that quite simply she didn't know what she was talking about.
She says she called in the SFO after new information came in. That information must be earth-shattering, because the SFO takes an interest only when large sums of money are at issue. But this doesn't excuse her astonishing botch of the existing problem.
She has rounded on the trust, accusing it of ratting on its promise to her to face public questioning. The trust's response to the affair – it issued a brief and useless statement – was certainly inexcusable. The trust must now face the music, and it will be deafening. But that doesn't get Ms Parata off the hook either. She could have ordered a thorough inquiry into the affair. She didn't.
The SFO will now investigate whether crimes have been committed. But in fact a much more broad-ranging inquiry into the trust and its behaviour is needed. If crimes have been committed then prosecutions should follow. But the allegations are also about mismanagement and lack of accountability.
One trust member is said to have received a koha of $50,000 for work on the kohanga reo treaty claim. This was not reported in the trust's annual accounts. So just how lax and loose is the trust with taxpayer's funds? Are there other cases of apparently casual handouts lacking the proper documentation?
The trust has been at the centre of controversy for many years, and the complaints have come from within the kohanga movement itself, not from malicious Pakeha. It was kohanga reo people themselves who complained to Maori Television. The trust, true to form, gave them short shrift.
There has been a history of claims of questionable spending by the trust along with charges of arrogance and high-handedness. This is a tragedy because the kohanga reo have played a vital role in the noble cause of saving the Maori language. In fact the movement is now in crisis, because attendance at kohanga peaked at 14,000 in 1996, fell, and then flatlined at less than 10,000. The current scandal, unfortunately, does nothing to restore confidence in the movement
- The Dominion Post