Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Williamson shits on our constitution

The Ombudsman is one of our final constitutional backstops. They have the power to hear complaints about any government body, and make recommendations if a decision was unlawful, unjust, mistaken, or just plan wrong. While the law speaks of "recommendations", in practice they are binding rulings, and always obeyed. Until now, that is.

Last year the Ombudsman considered a complaint about levies imposed by the Plumbers, Gasfitters, and Drainlayers Board. The Regulations Review Committee had heard a similar complaint, and come to the unanimous conclusion that the fees were unlawful and recommended their disallowance (which National voted down). The Ombudsman has now released their full decision [PDF] in which they agree with the RRC, and recommend validating legislation (well, technically that the Board and MoBIE raise it with their Minister) combined with a partial refund of unlawfully-collected fees.

Normally, that's what would happen. But Maurice Williamson, the Minister responsible for this clusterfuck, disagrees. While he is pushing validation, he is refusing any refund, full or partial:

Mr Williamson yesterday dismissed Mr McGee's recommendation.

"I think the Ombudsman's Office is wrong. The board would be technically insolvent if they had to pay this money back," he said.

The Ombudsman notes this, but also notes that the Board should receive government support to compensate the victims of its failure. But Williamson is too cheap for that. And his desire to save a piddling $600,000 is trampling on one of our most important (but unstated) constitutional provisions.

What can be done? Well, if Ministers ignore the Ombudsman, then we need to force them to obey. The OIA has language making Ombudsman's decisions on the Act binding and imposing a public duty on all agencies to give effect to them. Thanks to Williamson, I think its time we inserted a similar provision into the Ombudsman's Act. Because clearly, we can no longer rely on the good will and constitutional impulses of Ministers any longer.