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Evidence shines new light on Rebstock ruling

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 28/01/2014

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A former top aide to Prime Minister John Key has been drawn into the controversy surrounding two senior diplomats with the release of new documents from the so-called Rebstock inquiry.

The documents show the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC), Sir Maarten Wevers, gave evidence to the inquiry, defending former diplomat Derek Leask and others for keeping ministers and Beehive staff in the loop on a matter causing widespread disquiet.

His evidence calls into question the inquiry's finding that Mr Leask and another former diplomat, Nigel Fyfe, acted highly improperly by communicating directly with the Beehive over their concerns about a restructuring plan at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat).

Set up to inquire into leaks from the ministry, the inquiry, led by former Commerce Commission boss Paula Rebstock, accused the two diplomats of seeking to influence Sir Maarten and the prime minister's office to intervene at Mfat.

Ms Rebstock was critical of their actions and claimed the two men acted without authority in having private conversations with ministers or the DPMC.

She accused them of "exceeding their authority" and referred to "unconscionable" acts by Mfat staff.

But Ms Rebstock appears to have dismissed Sir Maarten's evidence suggesting otherwise and her report downplays its significance by referring to him only as a "senior public servant".

Sir Maarten made it clear to the inquiry that communications between ministers or the DPMC with heads of mission at Mfat was common practice and he did not consider any of the material passed on by Mr Leask "a leak".

Sir Maarten said it was clear "a number of staff within Mfat onshore and offshore [were] deeply troubled by the proposed changes". "Their disquiet seemed to reflect not only their personal perspectives but also their anxiety about the potential impact on the reputation of the ministry and its ability to carry out its functions appropriately in the national interest. The prime minister had also expressed some misgivings publicly."

It was not unusual, meanwhile, for heads of mission to communicate directly with relevant departments, chief executives or even ministers, Sir Maarten said.

Ms Rebstock's focus on Mr Leask and Mr Fyfe has sent ripples through the public service and caused disquiet among the likes of former Mfat boss Neil Walter, who has come out publicly in their defence.

Her inquiry found neither of them leaked the sensitive Cabinet papers which ended up in a Labour MP's hands and which initially sparked the inquiry.

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A State Services Commission staffer who previously worked for Labour came under strong suspicion from the inquiry that he was the prime leaker but there appears to have been no action taken against him. 

The State Services Commission confirmed yesterday it had decided against seeking the lifting of name suppression against its former staffer, who fought the release of the report through the courts.

Mr Leask is now retired and Mr Fyfe is now a deputy secretary at the Ministry of Justice. He has been on leave since shortly after the release of the report.

The State Services Commissioner said yesterday Justice Secretary Andrew Bridgman was still considering the "implications" of the Rebstock report.

- The Dominion Post

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