Senior public servant who spoke out still on leave

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 21/02/2014

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A former senior diplomat remains on leave from the Justice Ministry more than two months after he was criticised for opposing restructuring at the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry.

Top trade negotiator Nigel Fyfe, now a deputy secretary of justice, was one of two former senior diplomats criticised by inquiry head Paula Rebstock in a report into Mfat leaks, which was made public late last year following an 18-month investigation.

Rebstock found no evidence either Fyfe or Derek Leask leaked any documents but used wide-ranging powers, granted to her by the State Services Commission to access their emails and phone records, to accuse them of acting improperly because they communicated their concerns about the restructuring to others.

She cited an email from Leask to senior Beehive staff and ministers as one example, even though it is known senior ministers had personally sought out the views of heads of mission and senior Wellington staff on the restructuring.

A source within the Justice Ministry told The Dominion Post  Fyfe "cleared his desk" before Christmas but the ministry will only say he is on leave.

Secretary of Justice Andrew Bridgman yesterday refused to take any questions about Fyfe's employment and referred all inquiries to a public relations manager.

He also refused to answer questions about whether Justice Minister Judith Collins had raised the Rebstock report with him.

Collins said yesterday it was an employment matter between the chief executive and Fyfe.

"It is not appropriate for me to seek to interfere in this matter.

"I have not and I will not."

Fyfe declined to comment yesterday.

Rebstock singled out Fyfe and Leask over their opposition to restructuring proposals at Mfat, which had caused an uproar among senior staff and threatened to cause an exodus of many of its most experienced diplomats.

During the restructuring period, a number of documents were leaked, including sensitive Cabinet papers which Rebstock believed may have been passed to the Opposition by a worker at the State Services Commission, but could not prove it.

The staffer had previously worked for the Labour Party and handled the Cabinet papers in his role at the commission. Ms Rebstock's report did not name the staffer, who fought its release through the courts and won name suppression, which the commission did not seek to have lifted.

Despite finding no evidence that either Fyfe or Leask had leaked any documents, Ms Rebstock accused them of fostering a climate in which leaks had occurred.

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Rebstock's report ignored evidence from one of the country's most senior public servants, former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet chief executive Sir Maarten Wevers, that it was not considered improper for senior diplomats to communicate directly with ministers on such issues.

There has also been high-profile support from a former secretary of foreign affairs, Neil Walter, while other former diplomats spoken to by The Dominion Post have also expressed outrage at Rebstock's focus on Fyfe and Leask.

The Public Service Association said the Rebstock report had helped create a "climate of fear" at Mfat, where staff felt pressured into remaining silent "amidst the worry that if they speak out they will be victimised".

- The Dominion Post

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