Shonky process begs answers

Last updated 12:00 25/02/2013

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OPINION: Prime Minister John Key could have done something truly great last week.

He could have conceded officials were put in an awkward position whereby they must have felt encouraged to shrink from their principles. He could have conceded there is moral murkiness in private-public partnerships and reassured us that the Government will be more careful from now on. He could have apologised for being too open-minded about getting problem gamblers to pay for a convention centre.

Instead, he chose to be a smart-alec.

Clinging to technicalities was one way to limit the fallout from the deputy auditor-general's report detailing a compromised tendering process for building the Auckland convention centre.

Another option was to seriously consider the content, learn from it and take responsibility for any weaknesses in the process he may have directly, or indirectly, inspired.

The fact is that one tenderer, SkyCity, enjoyed preferential treatment.

Opposition MPs may have trouble pinning Mr Key on his conduct in this affair, but their lack of effectiveness does not put him in the clear. The findings of deputy auditor-general Philippa Smith are not to be sneezed at.

Among her comments are that there was "too little focus on the disciplines that should govern commercial decision-making in the public sector".

That would be an understatement.

While seeing "no evidence to suggest that the final decision to negotiate with SkyCity was influenced by any inappropriate considerations" - a remarkable conclusion in the circumstances - the detail is damning enough.

The process was breathtakingly poor.

The question is why.

Why would the neutral civil service bend over backwards to twist a process in any way in particular? Why was the evaluation process of the expressions of interest not even-handed? Why did officials work so closely with SkyCity while keeping the other tenderers out of the loop?

Why was the process so shonky?

The deputy auditor-general was not prepared to go there in any serious way, but the public is not stupid.

Civil servants are process-oriented people. It is implausible to think they would suddenly develop ineptness in their strong suit.

We all know what outcome was favoured by the prime minister and his Government - and only the naive would imagine that their pollution of the process made no difference.

The deputy auditor-general's general comments provide cause for concern.

"Internationally, financially constrained governments are looking for new and creative ways to collaborate with the private sector to achieve their goals," she said.

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"As a result, we should expect more initiatives that test the boundaries of established ways of working - including established procurement procedures."

But creativity is a poor substitute for going about things properly. Let us hope that this testing of boundaries does not extend to the testing of ethical boundaries.

"Process should not stand in the way of such innovation," Ms Smith said, referring to showing initiative.

It depends on what is meant by innovation. She surely does not mean meetings and dinners involving the prime minister, his chief of staff, Cabinet ministers, their advisers and SkyCity executives and board members.

That Cabinet minister Gerry Brownlee should say, at one point, "too many people are talking to SkyCity", is interesting.

That the Government's position now is indifference towards a serious critique smacks of arrogance.

The most unimpressive thing Mr Key has said recently was that he was not losing sleep ahead of the inquiry's release.

If he has worthwhile qualities as a leader, he will regret this statement among several other flippant ones.

If he is to continue leading this nation after next year's election we need to know we can trust him.

His attitude to the SkyCity controversy gives us cause to think our trust so far may have been misplaced.

Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard''s head of content and a politics junkie.

- Manawatu Standard

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