Friday, May 24, 2013

Still questions about the Devoy appointment

Last week, when I was busy with other things, I finally received a (late) response to my Official Information Act request about Susan Devoy's appointment as Race Relations Commissioner. The Herald has already covered the main point - that Devoy was in fact the second choice of a second round of interviews, after Michael Jones - but assuming they got the same documents that I did they missed a few things.

Firstly, the process. The Ministry of Justice sent Judith Collins a standard briefing on the need to advertise the appointment in June 2012, and a briefing summarising the applications received in mid-July (not scanned, because its basically a duplicate of the October document below). But also in the paper trail is a rather interesting pair of undated files notes in which Collins basically sets out to undermine the process she has already set in train. The first - dated by the Minister in her response as "circa August 2012" - talks openly about the need for "broadening the pool" of applicants. Exactly who wanted this broader pool and why is sadly redacted as a "free and frank" expression of opinion; but given that it is the Minister who makes the decisions we must assume that it came from her. As for why, we already know that it was not an issue of candidate quality - high quality candidates were summarily ignored. So it must be for some other reason. The Minister needs to answer some questions about this.

(If it was Collins, then the decision to withhold this as "free and frank opinion" is dodgy. Ministers can and should be expected to be held accountable for their views)

In the second undated file note ("circa October 2012", according to the Minister), the Minister discusses contacting alternative candidates before a single interview has been conducted. Which raises serious doubts as to whether the subsequent interviews were carried out in good faith.

In October 2012 the Ministry sent Collins a second briefing, basically a hurry up, asking her to select a short-list for interview. Some people may find it odd for a Minister to be taking such a close interest in the process, rather than letting the Ministry make recommendations, but as a remarkably frank email released in response to a similar request about Jackie Blue's appointment noted, "[t]he Minister's preference is to perform that task herself". Because all the names and candidate details have been redacted, we do not know if Collins selected the strongest candidates or the weakest ones (but again note that some very strong candidates were not even interviewed). What we do know is that the interview panel found both of Collins' shortlisted candidates to be unsuitable. (Devoy was subsequently the second choice of a second-round of interviews; the report of her interview panel is here)

Secondly, Devoy claimed not to remember who had asked her to apply for the job. But as this email shows, it was a Ministry of Justice staffer acting on the orders of Secretary for Justice Andrew Bridgman. There is no paper trail on who asked Bridgman to contact her, but we can only assume that it was Collins.

Thirdly, there's the issue of the Paris Principles. This is a set of rules the UN uses to rate national human rights institutions like our Human Rights Commission, and one of the fundamentals is that those bodies must be independent of the government. The October briefing to the Minister sets out the fundamentals: a transparent appointments process, and representation from civil society on the interview panel. It is questionable whether a process in which candidates are shoulder-tapped qualifies as "transparent". As for the second criteria, it is highly questionable whether an SOE-chair counts as a "civil society" representative rather than a government appointee, and their independence is certainly questionable. Collins may have put the Human Rights Commission's A-status accreditation with the UN at risk with her actions. If it is downgraded, we will know exactly who to blame.