leadership, Ministerial responsibility, New Zealand, New Zealand Politics

When does a Minister stop being responsible?

I write this as a former Minister. I have worked with the understanding of what “ministerial responsibility” is.

But I am stunned on my return to New Zealand to watch Ministers blame their departmental officials and never take responsibility themselves…even if it were just to apologise.

Here in NZ, a report from the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security has been released. It is a report on information released by the Security Intelligence Service in July and August 2011. This was in the lead up to the General Election held on the 26 November. This is relevant because the release concerned the depth of a SIS briefing to the leader of the Opposition and the issue assumed significance in the election.

The report notes in para 15 that “there was a consequent failure on the part of the Director to take all reasonable steps to safeguard the political neutrality of the NZSIS, as required by….the New Zealand Security Intelligence Act 1969.”

The Prime Minister in 2011 was the Minister in Charge of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service.  The Prime Minister was the Minister responsible for the actions of that department.

But who apologises? Both the retired Director and the current Director have apologised for the failures of the SIS in this matter.

The Minister responsible has not apologised for failings in his department.

Instead John Key has dodged many questions with an attack on other politicians and on his former department, making much of the fact that the Department officials gave him incomplete, inaccurate and misleading information, on which he based his attack on Mr Goff.

So what is the job of Ministers? Do they not have responsibility for the work of their departments? When he sat down with them at their regular meetings, did he not discuss performance objectives for that department? Did he not raise questions as to how they were meeting their obligations under the applicable laws?

Question Time in the House is when Ministers are held to account for the actions of their Ministries/departments. It is not a time for shrugging the elegant shoulders and passing the buck to the department.

I know. I was always nervous of Question time. On the personal level it was because, in my nervousness, I would forget names/terms or have an unfortunate confusion as in “hazardous orgasms” instead of “hazardous organisms”. On the ministerial level you were nervous of what’d been unearthed of some failure within your departments. In my eighteen months as Minister of Biosecurity I had at least six snakes, some dead, arrive in the country….a serious breach of our biosecurity systems!  But I had to take responsibility. I had to accept that this had happened and commit to improvements.

In this current issue of Prime Ministerial response to a report criticising his previous department, I have not heard take any responsibility for what happened. Instead he has focussed on the lack of evidence to prove “political collusion” by the SIS. He has conveniently ignored the findings in paragraphs 9 to 21.

I want to live in a democracy. I pay taxes. I want those taxes to be spent wisely. I want those Cabinet Ministers responsible for the wise spending of our money to be accountable for that.

At the moment, they are not.  In recent times Ministers have been held to account for their behaviour, but not for the actions of their departments. This is what the Westminster style of government is based on.

Please, Mr Key, act in accordance with our unwritten constitution. Accept those findings. Apologise for the transgressions of the SIS, your department at that time, and for the impact on the political debate in 2011. And show us what you will do to ensure that this never happens again. The Director of NZSIS has accepted all eight recommendations…but the new Minister should also be committing to ensuring that these are followed through.

That is the minimum that should be done. The maximum would be your resignation. But I am a realist…