Friday, February 12, 2010

Exclusive: The magical appointment of Brian Neeson

Back in December, Justice Minister Simon Power appointed a number of National party cronies to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. Among them was Brian Neeson, a former National MP and outright bigot. I was curious about the process used to make these appointments, so I asked. The response arrived today, and its more interesting for what it doesn't say than for what it does.

The documents show a fairly standard appointments process. Nominations were sought from interested bodies such as the New Zealand Law Society, Ministry of Women's Affairs, TPK, and the government caucus and coalition partners. The people proposed were vetted, shortlisted, and interviewed by a panel which included the HRRT chair. A July 2009 briefing paper on the appointments noted that

It is the Chair's view that without interviews by an appropriately selected interview panel, the process will not provide an opportunity to properly assess the candidates' suitability, and thus will fail to provide sufficient security that conflicts of interest and any other potentially adverse issues are identified. the Chair considers it to be essential that any new member must demonstrate the ability to be able to contribute meaningfully to the decision-making process in cases that are often complex, and that the required skills cannot be evaluated without interview. He has also expressed concern that the suggested appointment of members without interview would be at odds with the practice of past years, and with practice followed in appointing members to other Tribunals having less constitutionally significant powers.
That last bit is prescient, because that robust interview process was seemingly never applied to Neeson or his fellow cronies. The panel recommended the appointment of five candidates (one of whom later dropped out) - and the cronies were added to their list by the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee:
At a recent meeting of the Cabinet Appointments and Honours Committee, the Committee identified Mr Brian Neeson, Mr Ken Shirley, Ms Wendy Gilchrist and Pastor Ravi Musuku as candidates suitable for appointment...
(Briefing to the Minister of Justice on Human Rights Review Tribunal Appointments, 15 September 2009).

Wendy Gilchrist was nominated by Minister of Agriculture David Carter in a letter to the Minister of Justice. There is no indication of where the other names came from (a followup OIA has been lodged with the Committee). Former HRRT member Gavin Cook was subsequently nominated by Minister of Immigration Jonathan Coleman.

Following this, there is no indication that these nominees were interviewed or subjected to any real scrutiny. This seems to be borne out by the Cabinet Paper on the appointments (Human Rights Review Tribunal - Panel Members, APH (09) 210), which explicitly contrasts the process for the two groups of candidates:

11. I invited nominations from the Government Caucus and leaders of the coalition partners. The Ministry of Justice also approached the New Zealand Law Society, the Ministry of Maori Affairs, the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Office of Disability Issues for nominations. An initial assessment of the candidates knowledge and experience was carried out by Ministry of Justice officials, in consultation with the Chairperson of the Tribunal, and an interview process followed.

12. Ministers nominated Ms Wendy Gilchrist, Pastor Ravi Musuku, Mr Brian Neeson, Me Ken Shirley, and Mr Gavin Cook.

Just before that, Power formally confirms that "an appropriate process has been followed in selecting the proposed appointees, in terms of the SSC appointment guidelines". Those guidelines require [PDF] that before shortlisting,
Candidates [are] assessed against competencies/skills required and for conflicts etc. Process documented & a shortlist agreed with selection panel.
There is no evidence beyond a standardised curriculum vitae form that this was done for the appointments suggested by Ministers. There is none of the required documentation of the process, no mention of any interviews, and no mention of any results before the appointments are finalised. The idea that it was in fact done, but the result was never formally reported to the Minister making the appointment, is simply unbelievable. The only conclusion then is that it was never done. Whichever way you look at it, this is no way to make an appointment, particularly to a semi-constitutional body such as the HRRT.

There is no suggestion that Mr Neeson's record of bigotry and support for discrimination during his time as an MP was ever raised during the process, let alone regarded as potentially incompatible with the position.

Neeson will be paid $475 a day, for an estimated 20 - 30 days of work a year, for the next five years, for a job he was never properly interviewed and which he is eminently unsuitable for. And that is pure cronyism.