My View - Karl du Fresne
OPINION: TV3's much-publicised 60Minutes documentary on the ugly fight between Bronwyn Pullar and the ACC did its best to present the affair as a heroes-and-villains contest.
Television likes its stories to be not only dramatic but uncomplicated, with clearly identifiable good guys and bad guys. Needless to say, ACC were presented as the bad guys and Ms Pullar as the victim. But the more I read about this convoluted business, the less I'm convinced it's quite so straightforward.
In 2002, Ms Pullar had a fall from her bike that left her with head injuries. Since then she's been locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with the ACC. The nub of it seems to be that Ms Pullar insists she's capable of only part-time work, whereas ACC wants her back in fulltime employment and off its books.
The affair burst into the public eye when it emerged that ACC had mistakenly sent Ms Pullar an email file last August containing confidential details about thousands of sensitive claims. Rather than alert ACC to its blunder and return the files, Ms Pullar chose to sit on them.
I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that she treated the ACC's blunder as an opportunity to gain some leverage over the corporation. It wouldn't be surprising, then, if the ACC executives who met her in December and were told of the blunder felt they were being threatened with media exposure if they didn't comply with Ms Pullar's demands.
Ms Pullar and her support person, Michelle Boag, deny making any such threat and back that up with a tape recording of the meeting which they made without the ACC's knowledge.
The police listened to the tape and decided there had been no offence. But it's still easy to see how ACC could have thought there was an implied, if not explicit, threat to embarrass the corporation by going to the media.
ACC's belief that it had been threatened is supported by the wording of an email later sent by Ms Boag to ACC Minister Judith Collins. In it, Ms Boag said it had been agreed at the meeting that Ms Pullar would return the document once agreement had been reached "on the way forward" – in other words, on a settlement that met Ms Pullar's objectives. It seemed clear that return of the sensitive email was contingent on ACC giving way to Ms Pullar's claims. Form your own conclusions.
That issue aside, here's how I see things. Ms Pullar, prior to her accident, was a high achiever with strong National Party connections. Her supporter, Ms Boag, is an even more formidable figure: a tough former National Party president with a background in high-level corporate PR and an intimate knowledge of the political world.
When Ms Pullar failed to get what she wanted from ACC through the normal channels she started pulling political strings. This is not an option for run-of-the-mill ACC claimants. It's available only to privileged political insiders.
Ms Pullar's decision to exploit her political contacts ended up claiming some high-profile casualties. ACC Minister Nick Smith, in a spectacular lapse of judgment, was persuaded to write a letter of reference for her on a ministerial letterhead and lost his Cabinet job as a result.
The deputy chairman of the ACC board, John McCliskie, whom 60Minutes described as a contact from Ms Pullar's political days, made an equally unwise decision to intervene in her case by setting up a meeting with corporation managers. Now Mr McCliskie has gone too.
After the controversy became public as a result of a media leak (one of several), Ms Pullar portrayed herself not as being driven by self-interest but as a public-spirited whistleblower concerned about "vulnerable" claimants and determined to expose what she saw as a rotten ACC culture. "This was never about me," she told TV3 reporter Melanie Reid.
Well, I don't buy it. Ms Pullar leaned on her high-powered connections to get a settlement that was favourable to her. It strikes me as convenient to now present herself as having been motivated by an altruistic urge to help the vulnerable.
60 Minutes presented her in a very sympathetic light, but Ms Pullar is no helpless victim. Neither does she come across as a champion of the powerless. She and Ms Boag are two tough customers who know how to play the system and don't exactly seem stricken with remorse over the collateral damage inflicted along the way.
The ACC culture may be in need of an overhaul, as Ms Pullar asserts, but the starting point for this drama was that a disaffected claimant used her contacts and influence to push for a beneficial outcome.
There's nothing illegal here, but it smacks of cronyism. And it strikes me as highly ironic that some politicians on the Left, notably Labour's Andrew Little, have taken up Ms Pullar's cause. Since when did the party that champions egalitarianism throw its weight behind privileged insiders seeking special treatment?
- © Fairfax NZ News