Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Exclusive: An appropriate process?

Back in December, Justice Minister Simon Power appointed a number of National party cronies, including former MP and arch-bigot Brian Neeson, to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. I've been digging into it ever since. Last month, I highlighted the irregular process used to appoint these cronies: their names appeared apparently from nowhere, and contrary to the view of HRRT chair Royden Hindle, he was appointed without any sort interview. Yesterday, I received a further OIA response [PDF] which casts more light on the subject.

Firstly, it confirms that the cronies were appointed without any interview or formal process. They were "well known to Ministers" who were "satisfied as to their suitability for appointment". And that, apparently, was the end of the matter. There was no examination of qualifications beyond a standardised curriculum vitae form, and certainly no formal test of their ability to contribute meaningfully to the work of the Tribunal as recommended by its chair. They were "well known to Ministers", and so they were in. Whether this is a suitable appointments process for a quasi-constitutional body with power to overturn legislation such as the HRRT is left as an exercise for the reader.

To add insult to injury, the nomination of these cronies displaced more qualified candidates. Power had initially proposed the reappointment of eight existing, experienced members of the HRRT. Four of them were dumped to make room for these cronies. These included all three legal practitioners, who the chair had specifically requested be retained to provide a core of legal capability "to ensure continuity in the decision-making process of the Tribunal". Faced with a choice between an effective human rights body, and jobs for their mates, National chose the latter.

Secondly, I asked about the processes' conformance with SSC guidelines, which require [PDF] that candidates be assessed against formal skill requirements and for conflicts of interest and the process documented. That drew the following response:

The SSC guidelines to which you refer are designed to ensure Ministers receive consistent information on candidates being recommended for appointment, about whom they often have no prior information. The guidelines are just that. It is wholly up to Ministers to determine to what extent the guidelines need to be applied in any appointment process or part thereof.
(Emphasis added)

So when Power certified to his Cabinet colleagues in the Cabinet paper recommending the appointments that

an appropriate process has been followed in selecting the proposed appointees, in terms of the SSC appointment guidelines
...it doesn't mean what it appears to mean. In fact, it doesn't mean anything at all. What constitutes an "appropriate process" is "wholly up to Ministers". According to Power, he could pull the names out of his arse (which is effectively what he did), and it would still constitute an "appropriate process".

I'd like to think that a Minister's certification in a Cabinet paper means a little bit more than that.