Monday, June 10, 2024

Policy by panic

Back in March, Ombudsman Peter Boshier resigned when he hit the statutory retirement age of 72, leaving the country in the awkward (and legally questionable) position of having him continue as a temporay appointee. It apparently took the entire political system by surprise - as evinced by Labour's dick move of trying to ram a member's bill to remove the age limit through under all stages urgency to allow Boshier to continue - which naturally raised the question of how the hell it happened. The answer is an illustration of political dysfunction and panic-driven policy.

The New Zealand Council for Civil Liberties used FYI, the public OIA request site, to ask the Ministry of Justice - the agency responsible for administering the Ombudsmen Act 1975 - for advice and communications since 2020 relating to the appointment of an Ombudsman or amendments to the Act. The response shows basically nothing until December last year, at which stage Boshier apparently emailed the Speaker and the Office of the Clerk so that they could work on recruitment of a replacement. Nothing seems to have come of that, so in late January Boshier sent an email [p22] to Secretary for Justice Andrew Kibblewhite pointing out that his statutory retirement date was rapidly approaching and "to raise with you... some issues and some solutions". All of which are redacted as "free and frank", because apparently the Ombudsman, the equivalent of a departmental CEO, would be deterred from sending such emails pointing out such problems in future if we were allowed to see what he said. But its clear from the other emails that the preferred solution had already been stovepiped down the emergency legislation to allow reappointment path, because the Parliamentary Counsel's Office was already working on it. So the Ministry of Justice prepared an aide memoire for the Minister on the subject, with the clear plan of ramming a bill through under all-stages urgency before Boshier's term expired.

During this time, the Officers of Parliament Committee - the body actually responsible for the appointment - had been meeting, and someone (probably a Labour MP, given their subsequent antics) seems to have proposed a Member's Bill to allow reappointment. For whatever reason - and once again, we're Not Allowed To Know, this time due to Parliamentary Privilege - the government chose not to progress it. So when the Ministry of Justice presented their plan for legislation to the Minister of Justice in late February, it sank like a stone: "It is not clear to us what happened after we provided the AM", and further inquiries were redirected to the Minister's Office. In other words, "blame the Minister, not us!" At a guess, I'd say that Labour suggesting a bill killed the idea, because Ministers are petty little shits who reject opposition ideas out-of-hand to deny them a "win", even when its also being pushed by their own Ministry.

This is not how any of us would expect a well-organised system of government to run, especially for an appointment to a significant constitutional role. As the NZCCL points out, Parliament should have begun an appointment process in June last year. But they were asleep at the wheel, and so we got a paniced response proposing an emergency change under all-stages urgency, which (fortunately) was not advanced - and a bit of a constitutional mess. And so, here we are: Parliament finally began an inquiry to appoint a new Ombudsman on 19 March, and on past performance that will take until August, and we have Boshier filling the seat and subject to legal challenge on every decision he makes until then. Heckuva job our political class are doing. And clearly, such attention to detail is why we pay them the big bucks and give them huge pay rises.