Diplomats reject Rebstock report findings

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 08:38 13/12/2013

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Two senior diplomats are fighting back after an inquiry into a leaked Cabinet document turned into a witch-hunt for the ringleaders of opposition to sweeping job cuts within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

A deputy secretary at the Ministry of Justice, Nigel Fyfe, yesterday confirmed he was one of the former diplomats singled out by the inquiry and referred to as Person Y in its report. Retired diplomat Derek Leask, referred to as Person Z, is the other former staffer criticised by the inquiry for unprofessional behaviour.

The inquiry, headed by former Commerce Commission chairwoman Paula Rebstock, discovered the most likely source of leaked Cabinet papers was a temporary clerical worker employed by the State Services Commission who had previously worked for the Labour Party at Parliament.

The man - referred to only as Person X - cannot be named after he fought through the High Court and Court of Appeal to keep his name suppressed. When asked last night if the Labour Party had funded any of Person X's legal challenge, general secretary Tim Barnett said: "Certainly not."

The $510,000 Rebstock inquiry detailed how Person X was unable to satisfactorily explain the scanning of documents that exactly matched the size of two leaked Cabinet papers that later ended up in Labour MP Phil Goff's possession.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said the public "can draw their own conclusions both as to the actions of this individual and the role played by Mr Goff".

In what appeared to be a threat that name suppression would not protect Person X, State Services Minister Jonathan Coleman suggested yesterday Person X would be found out if he sought re- employment within the public service. "I'd say they can never be employed back in the public service in New Zealand."

The leaks occurred against a backdrop of turmoil within the ministry over restructuring plans which would have axed hundreds of jobs, slashed pay and conditions, and out-sourced some consular services. Forty-nine heads of mission flew back to New Zealand for an extraordinary meeting over the proposals and a number of senior staff quit. The proposals were later scaled back in the face of alarm among senior ministers at the potential damage to New Zealand's diplomacy in crucial markets.

The Rebstock inquiry did not find any link between the clerical assistant and Mr Leask or Mr Fyfe. But over a period of months it continued to trawl through phone records, emails and other information to accuse Mr Leask and Mr Fyfe of plotting against chief executive John Allen's restructuring plans. Mr Rennie, who commissioned the inquiry under pressure from the Government, said Ms Rebstock's report identified conduct by a group of senior public servants during the restructuring process "that fell below the standards expected of people in their position".

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Her report accused them of developing strategies to oppose the change proposals and to disrupt or stop the change process.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully launched an attack on both men, labelling their conduct "unprofessional and disreputable". Secretary of Justice Andrew Bridgman would not comment on whether the findings would have an impact on Mr Fyfe's new position.

But in separate statements yesterday, both men rejected the report's findings and accused the inquiry of being seriously unreliable and unjust. Mr Fyfe, a seasoned trade negotiator before he left for the Justice Ministry, said through his lawyer, Hugh Rennie, he had never leaked or released any information to media or politicians. The statement said he identified himself as Person Y because the report contained extensive information which identified him.

"He is disclosing his name to avoid any unfair effect on past and present Mfat staff."

Person Z, known to be Mr Leask, said he did not accept the validity of the inquiry and its findings. Private emails between him and Mr Fyfe detailing their opposition to the cuts and used by the inquiry against them were "like water cooler conversations in an office".

He did not resile from the fact that he challenged senior ministry managers over their proposals.

"Challenging the senior management is not undermining it - it is part of the process.

"Our concerns were underpinned by loyalty to Mfat and New Zealand's interest."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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