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House of Representatives
17 April 2008
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Appointments — Chief Ombudsman



Chief Ombudsman

Hon Dr MICHAEL CULLEN (Leader of the House) : I move, That pursuant to section 3(4) of the Ombudsmen Act 1975, this House recommends His Excellency the Governor-General appoint Beverley Anne Wakem, CBE, Ombudsman, of Wellington, as Chief Ombudsman. Beverley Wakem will be well known to members of the House. Her early career, after study at Victoria University and the University of Kentucky, was in the broadcasting business, where she began in 1963. She was, of course, chief executive of Radio New Zealand from 1984 to 1991.

She then spent a number of years in the private sector with Wrightson Ltd as, firstly, commercial director and then general manager of human resources and corporate affairs. She was appointed by the then National Government to the Higher Salaries Commission in September 1997—now, of course, the Remuneration Authority. She was reappointed to that body in 2001 and again in 2004, and she held a number of other Government appointments and private sector directorships.

In March 2005 she became an Ombudsman, and she has served in that office with distinction over the last 3 and a bit years. She is clearly the senior person now in the Office of the Ombudsmen and is well qualified to take over the role of Chief Ombudsman. This process has been through a broad consultation with other parties in the House, and I gather there is unanimous support for her appointment.

NATHAN GUY (National) : National supports the appointment of Ms Beverley Wakem as Chief Ombudsman, and I think it is appropriate for the House, and for those people listening, if I talk about the very important role of the Ombudsmen in our society. Earlier on this week the House appropriated money to three areas that sit under the Officers of Parliament—that is, the Auditor-General, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, and the Ombudsmen. For those listening and for those members in the House who do not realise, the Ombudsman was first appointed in 1962 under the Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman) Act, and in essence has been an evolving position through this Parliament over the last few decades.

I think it is important to touch on some of those movements over time when New Zealand has been evolving as a country. In 1968 the role of the Ombudsmen moved into education and hospital boards, and they could make all sorts of inquiries of that nature. In 1975 when the Ombudsman Act evolved to encompass local government agencies the Ombudsmen had an important role, as they also had when the Official Information Act was passed in 1982, in that they could do investigations and review complaints to do with all sorts of ministries of the Crown and central government agencies. In 1987 the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act came into force, and in 2000 the Protected Disclosures Act, which is the whistleblowers legislation, came into force.

I know from sitting on the Officers of Parliament Committee that the Ombudsmen do a big job. Over the last few years their workload has increased considerably. They have a staff of about 50 now and do some very, very good work. The Ombudsmen’s investigations that are carried out are conducted free and conducted in private. Beverley Wakem had the endorsement of the whole of the House, I believe, when her appointment went through the Officers of Parliament Committee earlier this week, on 14 April. She has been acting in her capacity as the Chief Ombudsman following on from the late John Belgrave, who passed away, sadly, on 3 December 2007.

I want to touch on Mr Belgrave—in particular, when he became quite a public figure in 2005. He rocketed to national prominence when he forced the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, to release the Treasury costings on the controversial interest-free student loan programme. The Prime Minister reluctantly did so, and it was revealed that the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, the Hon Dr Michael Cullen, had grossly underestimated the cost of the programme.

National today supports the appointment of Ms Beverley Wakem as Chief Ombudsman.

TE URUROA FLAVELL (Māori Party—Waiariki) : Madam Speaker, kia ora tātou. Three years ago Beverley Wakem addressed a ceremony in Wellington with the words “You will need to be well informed, develop a sense of perspective, what is the history of this and that, what is going on behind and what is going on in front, and what is the cause of this. Be curious, be sceptical, and don’t be sidetracked by political spin, and be alert to the large responsibility you have in seeking the truth. And remember in the welter of technology which surrounds you that the most simple means of communication is still the best—people talking directly to people.”

The occasion was the presentation of the 2005 Churches Broadcasting Commission scholarships, and those words could just as easily have been applied to the role of Ombudsman. The Māori Party has enormous respect for those people who fill the shoes of the Ombudsman role. Their job is, as other members have already said, pretty difficult, involving investigating complaints about the decisions of central and local government agencies and Ministers of the Crown and doing the legwork to seek out the truth. The list of complaints that can be received is pretty substantial, from what I can see, including benefit payments, housing, health, immigration, passports, accident compensation, prisons, education, taxation, and child support, and on and on it goes.

To be able to respond to the demands of this position takes a special type of person and a particular set of skills. We in this House all appreciate just how unique these people are through our association with the former Clerk of the House Mr David McGee, who, after 34 years in this place, when others would be thinking of a good holiday, took on the challenge of the Ombudsman’s role.

The Māori Party is happy to support the appointment of Beverley Wakem as the Chief Ombudsman. As noted earlier, it takes a person of distinctive qualities to take up such a challenging role. In dealing with many agencies—and I am thinking particularly of prisons, the police, and Child, Youth and Family—our whānau feel as if they are caught in the context whereby they either sink or swim or suffer. The Ombudsman helps them to swim and to restore their confidence that if there is injustice occurring, the independent scrutiny of the Ombudsman will help to right the wrongs.

Beverley Wakem is no stranger to challenge. Beverley brings a remarkable reputation to the role, having had significant management and governance experience across a range of performing arts institutes, insurance savings and remuneration bodies, as the general manger of Wrightson Ltd, executive chairman of Hill and Knowlton, and an associate member of the Institute of Directors. She has also made her mark on the national scene by being unafraid to ask the hard questions in order to search out the truth—or at least for a more positive outcome.

As chief executive of Radio New Zealand she engaged in a public fight over gender issues when she banned a list of 140 sexist terms of abuse from news and advertising. In the same role in 1986 she appeared before the Waitangi Tribunal and impressed its members with what they described as “impressive diligence and care” in explaining the impact that broadcasting media have on Māori interests.

In 2002 she was a member of a change implementation advisory group set up by the State Services Commission, which produced a report about turning the face of the system towards citizens. The focus of the group was to encourage—and indeed provoke—public officials to see citizens in a much broader frame, and to be willing to engage in new ways of thinking and relating.

All of these qualities will stand Beverley in great stead for the very significant role of Chief Ombudsman. We wish her great courage in continuing to tackle the truth, to be curious, to be sceptical, and not to be sidetracked by political spin. Kia ora tātou.

  • Motion agreed to.