Former rebuild minister Gerry Brownlee questioned need to audit Cera before damning report

Then Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee during a media briefing in 2012.
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/FAIRFAXNZ

Then Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee during a media briefing in 2012.

Former rebuild minister Gerry Brownlee queried the need to audit the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority's (Cera) performance, saying he was not sure why the work was necessary.

It went ahead – and found numerous issues with Cera's performance, including poor communication with the public and a failure to deliver anchor projects on time.

The auditor-general's report, released in February after Government-requested alterations, found tensions between Cera and the Christchurch City Council delayed Canterbury's post-earthquake rebuild.

A State Services Comission inquiry, sparked by allegations of conflicts of interest, found Murray Cleverley's judgment ...
MYTCHALL BRANSGROVE/FAIRFAX NZ

A State Services Comission inquiry, sparked by allegations of conflicts of interest, found Murray Cleverley's judgment fell below the standard expected while he worked at Cera.

It found Cera's management controls "needed improvement right up to the time of its disestablishment" in 2016.

Two months later, a State Service Commission inquiry found serious misconduct or faulty judgment on the part of three former Cera staffers – Gerard Gallagher, Simon Nikoloff and Murray Cleverley – after conflict of interest allegations

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Brownlee on Wednesday struggled to recall his June 2016 comments regarding the auditor-general's work, but said he never opposed an audit of Cera's operations.

Email correspondence released to Stuff  shows Brownlee's private secretary, Mike Shatford, a former Cera staffer, told the auditor-general's office the minister "would like to have a chat" about the report.

"He isn't sure why this work is/or needs to be done," Shatford wrote.

Brownlee said on Wednesday: "I can't quite remember the context.

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"The only thing I can think of is I was ... wondering why they were doing an efficiency report on an organisation that was being wound up".

"It could've been a comment in passing ... [at] no time was I opposed or concerned about the auditor-general looking at Cera, in fact quite the opposite," Brownlee said.

Brownlee said he contacted the auditor-general's office near the end of 2011 because he wanted it to be involved in "oversight of what was happening in Christchurch".

"One of the things that we were aware of was that you can get quite a bit of bad behaviour when you've got large sums of public money flooding into a place," Brownlee said.

Labour's Canterbury spokeswoman, Megan Woods, said she found the comments attributed to Brownlee unsurprising.

"This is also a minister who cancelled the conference, which was meant to ask some hard questions about the recovery."

Brownlee believed Woods was implying he "made an attempt over a period of years to hide things", but the truth was "quite the opposite". 

CHANGES MADE TO CERA AUDIT

The correspondence showed the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) was allowed to supply a "large number" of comments and suggested changes before the auditor-general's report was publicly released. 

Many suggestions were accepted, but DPMC would not say what alterations were made.

"The changes remain confidential to ensure fairness to audited entities and other affected parties," DPMC Greater Christchurch Group director Kelvan​ Smith said.

"Releasing the draft report could undermine the principle of confidentiality that supports the integrity of the audit process by allowing the full and free exchange of information between the entity and the auditor," he said.

Smith said it was usual practice for the auditee, in this case DPMC, to have the opportunity to comment on draft audit findings.  

"When the effectiveness and efficiency review of Cera was conducted, Cera no longer existed."

Because Cera became a departmental agency under the DPMC 18 months ago, DPMC was "the primary interested party, or auditee" when the auditor-general's review was carried out, he said.

 - Stuff

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