Hansard and Journals
Offices of Parliament — Address to Governor-General
[Sitting date: 05 April 2012. Volume:679;Page:1745. Text is incorporated into the Bound Volume.]
Offices of Parliament
Address to Governor-General
Hon GERRY BROWNLEE (Leader of the House) : I move, That a respectful Address be presented to His Excellency the Governor-General commending to His Excellency the alterations to the appropriations for the 2011/12 financial year in respect of Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen, and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and the appropriations and information for the 2012/13 financial year in respect of Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. In order to maintain the independence of the Offices of Parliament, the Public Finance Act provides for funding for the Office of the Controller and Auditor-General, the Office of the Ombudsmen, and the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to be determined by Parliament through the Officers of Parliament Committee. The House then presents an address to the Governor-General commending the appropriation. The Officers of Parliament Committee heard evidence from each of the offices and examined those submissions, with evidence from Treasury. The Officers of Parliament Committee reached its decision on the funding required for the offices to carry out the duties required of them. The details for each vote are set out in the Officers of Parliament Committee report presented to the House on 3 April of this year. These parliamentary offices do a very good job inside our democracy. They are important in giving the public confidence in the scrutiny that comes upon Governments and, indeed, the parliamentary process in some cases. I think the ongoing support for them is overwhelming in the House, and the public respect for these offices is extremely high. With those few comments, I move the motion.
GRANT ROBERTSON (Deputy Leader—Labour) : I do want to begin by agreeing with those last comments from the Leader of the House about the importance of the role of the Offices of Parliament that we have. The Officers of Parliament Committee has looked at the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, the Office of the Auditor-General, and the Office of the Ombudsmen. These are very important offices. I might say the Auditor-General is going to be busy, I think, and certainly the extra resources being provided will be very important as the Auditor-General embarks on getting to the bottom of the ACC saga and mess, which has been created by a whirlwind of National Party figures coming together in what can be described only as a saga and a mess. I have heard it called a schemozzle; there are probably other words as well. The Auditor-General will be needing every last piece of the resources that are being provided under this motion to be able to get to the bottom of that particular saga.
In fact, I wonder whether the Auditor-General will be able to get to the bottom of this saga, because I suspect it will be very difficult to get into the minds of the Ministers who were involved in this, of the senior National Party figures such as Michelle Boag, and of the members of the board with National Party connections. This is a saga—a tawdry saga—that the Auditor-General now has to find her way through. I think she will find it difficult. There are four other inquiries under way. I am not sure even they will be able to get to the bottom of this mess, particularly the role of Ministers, the conduct of Ministers in this situation, and the links to the National Party. But I wish the Auditor-General well in her inquiry. We on this side of the House hope that we can shed some light on some important issues of the conduct of an agency—ACC—that we regard very fondly. It is a very important part of our health and social welfare systems, and the fact that it is being dragged through the mud by the involvement of these National Party figures in this saga is most unfortunate. I do hope that the Auditor-General will be able to get to the bottom of some of that.
The other thing I want to say before I get on to the Office of the Ombudsmen is just to congratulate the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. I believe that her work has been of an excellent quality in recent times. Most recently, today in the Local Government and Environment Committee we heard from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment about her report on water quality, or the science of water quality, in New Zealand. This is a critical contribution to the debate on those issues, and there are other reports that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is about to undertake; one is into the issues of fracking, which I know other members in the House will certainly speak about in times to come. We welcome the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment undertaking that inquiry. There certainly are serious concerns in the community that will be dealt with by that inquiry.
I think what we are seeing there is that as the public of New Zealand have an increasing awareness of the importance of the environment to our future in New Zealand, and of the importance of the environment to our economy, there will be more work for the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. And I hope there is, because she brings an independent voice to those very important issues. I hope that the Government continues to support her work, encourage that work, and make sure that it is part of the decision-making process of the Government. I certainly believe that the current report on water will be a significant contribution.
I want to devote the majority of my comments, however, to the Office of the Ombudsmen. I want to say at the outset that it is good that the Officers of Parliament Committee has recommended a funding increase for the Office of the Ombudsmen. The funding increase of $300,000 is welcome, and I do think we need to have that on the record of the House as an important contribution to addressing some of the issues that the Office of the Ombudsmen is facing. But I think we need to reflect on the position that the Office of the Ombudsmen finds itself in now, receiving that $300,000, because, in fact, when the Chief Ombudsman went to the Government Administration Committee, she did say that she would need about $1 million extra in order to meet the operating costs of the office and to employ two more investigators, who are desperately needed to clear the backlog in the Office of the Ombudsmen. So although $300,000 is a welcome addition in funding, it is quite clear to me that the Office of the Ombudsmen is now in a situation where it has been grossly neglected, I believe.
I respect what the Leader of the House said about the independent nature of the way that these bodies are funded through the Officers of Parliament Committee, but we have to acknowledge that that is in the overall context of the Government’s financial plan—for want of a better word—for the country. I know that the Leader of the House mentioned, when he spoke just before, that there is advice from Treasury as part of this process. Quite clearly, the fact that the Government is squeezing the public sector finances and is making cuts in the back room, the front office, and anywhere you like has an effect on the amount of money that is available to the Officers of Parliament Committee to fund these kinds of agencies. So I understand the argument of independence, but it is in the context of a Government that is starving the public sector of funds. It has acknowledged that it is not just about the back room—whatever that means; the Government does not have a definition of that. This week we heard from the Minister of Finance that front-line services are in the gun, as well. Front-line services are now what are being attacked, and New Zealanders are starting to notice that. The Office of the Ombudsmen sits in that context, because although the Officers of Parliament Committee can find some additional funding, it is operating in an environment where it does not get close to the million dollars that Beverley Wakem said she needed to run her office properly.
There is not much that is more important in our democratic structure than the Office of the Ombudsmen. It is the office that ensures that Government departments and agencies are accountable and that they are transparent. The Office of the Ombudsmen does not just look at Official Information Act requests. The office looks at the behaviour of departments, particularly in the correctional space, which is a very important area. Many New Zealanders will remember ombudsmen’s inquiries into things like the incredibly unfortunate death of Liam Ashley while in the custody of the Department of Corrections. There have been a number of examples of this, and to see that office describing itself—the Chief Ombudsman describing the office itself—as being in crisis, in front of a select committee, really does call into question our collective commitment to having this agency do the work it needs to do.
New Zealanders should be incredibly proud of the fact that we rank so highly in the Transparency International rankings. It is something that is great about our country, but we run the risk, when institutions like the Office of the Ombudsmen say that they are in crisis and unable to process the requests in front of them, that we will lose that kind of ranking. It is important for me to put on the record of this House that the New Zealanders whom I talk to want to see New Zealand keep that transparency ranking, want to see accountable institutions of Government, and will be very concerned to know that the Chief Ombudsman feels that her office has been in crisis. As the Chief Ombudsman herself said to the Government Administration Committee, justice delayed is justice denied, and people are already distressed when they approach the office. That is what she said herself, and I can only endorse that comment. If people are waiting years, in some cases, for their complaints to be dealt with by the Office of the Ombudsmen, we have a serious problem, and it is a problem that this Parliament needs to take more responsibility for over the coming years, acknowledging as I do the increased funding that has come forward from the Officers of Parliament Committee.
When the Chief Ombudsman arrived at the Government Administration Committee, she spoke about the fact that the office would not meet its targets this year. This was due to a lack of resources. Cases were becoming increasingly complex and requiring longer investigation. The budget for the office had been established on the basis of a workload of 800 to 1,000 cases. At the moment, there are 1,854—
Hon Trevor Mallard: How many?
GRANT ROBERTSON: —1,854 live cases in the office.
Hon Trevor Mallard: That’s more than twice what the budget is for.
GRANT ROBERTSON: That was previously, and there is now some increase, but it still will not meet that caseload. In fact, when the Chief Ombudsman went to the committee, 300 cases were unallocated. That is 300 cases that have not even begun to be dealt with. This is not acceptable in an agency—
Hon Trevor Mallard: That’s within the 1,854?
GRANT ROBERTSON: That is within the 1,854, yes, and that is unacceptable.
One other point that the Chief Ombudsman made, and that I do want to mention before my time runs out, was about staff well-being, and I acknowledge that some of the $300,000 will go towards that. To hear the Chief Ombudsman talk about the fact that the office is worried about staff sickness, high rates of serious illness, and the stress placed on staff—it is extremely worrying that that situation had been created. We need to look after people who are working in the Public Service, not put them under so much stress that they are unable to do their work. The Chief Ombudsman also recognised that the Government’s public sector reform programme—its cutting of funding to the public sector—will actually increase the amount of work that will come to the office.
So although the additional funding is welcome, there are still too many unallocated cases, and there is more work coming down the pipeline, from both public sector changes and the outcomes of the Canterbury earthquake, which I think will have a significant impact on the work of the Office of the Ombudsmen. That means this office will no doubt be back next year seeking more funding, and we need to take that seriously. I respect the constraints that the Government is working under, but it is clear to me that the fiscal squeeze from the Government has had an impact on the amount of resourcing available to the Office of the Ombudsmen. That office is too important for our transparency, for the accountability of Government agencies, and for our democracy as a whole, for us to see it starved of funding. We need to support it as a Parliament. I hope in the future we will discuss in more detail how we can get the resources to the office that it needs.
GARETH HUGHES (Green) : Kia ora, Mr Speaker. Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou. Kia ora. I rise on behalf of the Green Party to support the motion. The Green Party supports the appropriation through the report tabled by the Officers of Parliament Committee. We agree with the statement made by the Leader of the House, Gerry Brownlee, that it is important to maintain the independence and for the Officers of Parliament Committee to use its functions under the Public Finance Act to provide recommendations for the appropriations for these three offices.
The Officers of Parliament Committee report tabled shows the detail for each of the three votes. The committee heard submissions from the three offices, and, essentially, the Office of the Auditor-General, the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, and the Office of the Ombudsmen received the funding they requested. Another member who is on the committee may like to clarify this point if I am incorrect, but, to clarify for the member Grant Robertson, as I understand it, the $1 million figure was raised in the financial review in the Government Administration Committee, but the Office of the Ombudsmen requested only $300,000 in the Officers of Parliament Committee. But I acknowledge the point made that there is a significant context and environment in which these offices are involved, and that is we are seeing significant cuts to the public sector. That stress that we are seeing in those offices is also shared across the wider public sector, with lowering morale at the moment.
We would like to acknowledge the roles of the Auditor-General, the two ombudsmen, and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, and also acknowledge the staff in the offices. We think they do good work. They are important to our democracy. Looking at the ombudsmen, first up, the two ombudsmen do important work for our democracy, monitoring complaints for the Official Information Act, and they have an important corrections role. I note that if we ever run into funding problems in the future and we have to have a sponsorship-run wooden spoon awards evening for complainants under the Local Government Act and the Official Government Act, it would be the Prime Minister who would get the wooden spoon award presented by the ombudsmen for the record in the last financial year of 15 complaints.
Unfortunately, what we are seeing is very poor timeliness from the Office of the Ombudsmen. It wanted and aimed to complete 90 percent of all matters within a month, but it completed only 66. Unfortunately, in all those key performance indicators around timeliness, the office is failing to meet them, not because of the dedication of the staff—or because of the lack of dedication of the staff—but simply because of the lack of resources. What we are seeing—and what we heard in the financial review report of the Office of the Ombudsmen—is that it is quite literally sinking under the weight of complaints. The baseline funding works on the assumption that it will be dealing with 800 to 1,000 cases. What we saw in the last financial year was 1,854 cases, and in some periods it was as high as 2,000. It is sinking under the weight of complaints. Unfortunately for the staff, they have not seen a pay rise since 2007. I think that is scandalous. They have not seen a pay rise since 2007, yet backbenchers in this Chamber, over the equivalent period, have seen a pay rise of 12.3 percent. It is not fair, and what we want to see is good baseline funding so that we can pay these people appropriately.
Thirdly, what we are also seeing is the Office of the Ombudsmen unable, because of a lack of resources, to promote its services to the public. So we welcome the report of the Officers of Parliament Committee to advise the Government to amend section 17 of the Ombudsmen Act. We welcome that legislation. We welcome hearing submissions in the select committee as to how we can streamline it. But the key thing we cannot lose is that an ombudsman is actually the last place people can go. We have to make sure that last place is protected.
Looking at the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, we would like to acknowledge the quality work of Jan Wright and also of her office. I was particularly impressed by the lignite report. The recent water report is a significant, topical issue, and it is good to see the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment engaged in that debate. I wholeheartedly welcome the fracking report. It is a pity we cannot see what would be the responsible step, which is a moratorium until the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment reports back, but we will keep campaigning on that.
The biggest challenge the office is facing—and what the Green Party would like to offer to this debate in the Chamber—is the new role of environmental monitoring. It has been signalled well through the media that environmental monitoring will be shifting from the Ministry for the Environment to the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. The Green Party thinks it is, on balance, a pretty good idea. You have got the Ministry for the Environment responsible for policy and regulation, and it makes sense to have a separate body responsible for monitoring. It is an appropriate agency. I think it does have the skills, but what it lacks are resources. The challenge for the office is that it is likely to be lumped with this task for next year, but it has not been able to get any extra appropriation to start gearing up for the significant new workload, because there is no legislation. So we would like to offer to the Government benches that we would like to support that legislation. We hope that we can see that legislation soon, because we would like to engage with it, get it cracking, and get it passed so that we can see that office prepare for, and do quality work on, environmental monitoring.
So, in summary, the Green Party supports the recommendations in the report—the appropriations—and we are glad to be essentially giving baseline funding and other additional funding increases to these offices. But, like the Labour Party, we also think they are not enough to do the important work needed, and we would like in future years to be granting more significant funding increases to these very important offices. Kia ora.
CHRIS HIPKINS (Labour—Rimutaka) : I am happy to take a call on Government motion No. 3, which deals with the financial appropriations for Vote Audit, Vote Ombudsmen, and Vote Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. I want to talk about each of those agencies respectively.
I want to start with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. I begin by noting some of the really important work that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has been engaged with and is engaged with, and the growing importance of many of the issues that she has been working on. If we look over just the last little while—the last couple of years—we have seen very useful and valuable reports from the commissioner on issues like 1080, biofuels, and water quality, and, of course, we have now got some work being undertaken in that area around fracking.
I think that, increasingly, issues that the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is working on, monitoring, and investigating are coming more and more to the fore in terms of the public’s consciousness and in terms of the range of political debate we are having. So I think that the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is potentially going to become a more and more prominent one in this institution, and I think that is something we welcome on this side of the House very much. It is important that we ensure the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is adequately resourced, and this resolution before the House is one of the ways we can do that.
The next agency I want to talk about is the Office of the Auditor-General, whose funding is dealt with by this resolution before the House, because the Office of the Auditor-General is a vital and very, very important check on the use and potential abuse of power by the Government. I think we have seen some really good examples in recent weeks of why the independence of the Office of the Auditor-General is vitally important. It does provide the public of New Zealand with that vital check on the use of power.
We have seen the Auditor-General announcing that she is investigating ACC. That is going to be a very, very interesting investigation, because it does cut to the heart of the use and potential abuse of power within this Parliament. Here we have a situation, which will be investigated by the Auditor-General, where we have a Minister of the Crown, and the allegations are that he was potentially misusing his position as a Minister to procure some benefit for an acquaintance of his. That was very inappropriate. It ultimately cost the Minister his job, but we have now got an ongoing saga within the Government that seems to be tearing the Government to pieces, actually. It is an ongoing saga as to who was involved and who knew what when, and that is something that I hope the Auditor-General will at least be able to shine a little more light on in her investigation.
There are other areas where, I would argue, the Auditor-General should be involved and should be conducting some further investigations. The funding processes of New Zealand On Air, and the management of conflicts of interest at New Zealand On Air, is another really good example of where the Auditor-General could, rightly, be asking some very pointed questions. There are significant amounts of money being allocated by New Zealand On Air with significant involvement of the Prime Minister’s electorate chairperson in those funding decisions. That is something that the Auditor-General should be looking at and should be concerned about. These are not insubstantial amounts of money, and it was in a highly political time—for example, in the run-up to an election period. The appropriateness of somebody holding such a high political office being involved in decisions around which political documentaries are and are not screened in the weeks before an election raises real concerns, and that is something that we on this side of the House think the Auditor-General may well want to look into.
There is another contemporary issue before the House today—it was before the House during question time today—and that is the appropriateness of the Government’s actions with regard to the Skycity Casino. That is something that we could ask the Auditor-General, at some future point, to look into—whether, in fact, Ministers have acted appropriately at all times in that investigation and whether or not all of the decision making around that has met the thresholds of transparency and accountability that this Parliament should be demanding of its Ministers. Those are issues that could be investigated by the Auditor-General. It is all the more important that the Auditor-General is adequately resourced to do that, and to be independent in its operations, so it is the responsibility of this Parliament to make sure that happens.
I want to turn now to the Office of the Ombudsmen, and I have some real concerns that this resolution that we are debating now does not provide the Office of the Ombudsmen with sufficient resourcing to do the job that it is requiring. I know from the comments made by the Speaker in the debate that the Office of the Ombudsmen has been given all that it has asked for. I do not think it asked for enough, and I am really surprised, because the financial review of the Office of the Ombudsmen, presented by the Government Administration Committee, was actually very specific around this stuff.
It was quite alarming when we read what the financial review said. It talked about the office considering itself to be in crisis. It has a budget that was established for a workload of between 800 and 1,000 cases at any one time, and it is now telling us that it is dealing with between 1,600 and 1,800 cases at any given time. That is significantly more than what its budget is established to deal with. It is so bad, in fact, that it has 300 cases that have not even been assigned to a case officer. In other words, they are sitting in a drawer. No one is even looking at them, because the office simply does not have enough resources to deal with that. That is something that this Parliament should be incredibly concerned about, and we should be taking more action to deal with that.
The Office of the Ombudsmen has 1,854 live cases on hand as at the date of this report being presented by the select committee. It is failing to meet some of its deadlines. It is talking about a lack of resources. It has noted to the committee that cases are becoming increasingly complex and require longer investigation. So not only is the Ombudsmen’s office dealing with more cases but it is dealing with more complex cases, and the Ombudsmen’s office has rightly argued that complainants would rather the office were right in its judgments than swift in its judgments. But that requires us as a Parliament to ensure that the office has sufficient resources to get it right, and to be thorough in its investigations, and it would appear from what the select committee is telling us that this Parliament is not living up to its obligation to do that.
The Office of the Ombudsmen is also struggling to communicate what it is doing. The Government Administration Committee’s report notes that the Office of the Ombudsmen, because of a lack of resources, is not able at the moment to publish case notes or the Ombudsmen Quarterly Review. These are really important things that the Office of the Ombudsmen does. The case notes and quarterly review deal with a wide array of issues and provide really important guidance to Government departments, Government agencies, those dealing with official information, and those dealing with really important processes. They provide very important guidance to them.
The fact that the Ombudsmen’s office is unable to deal with these issues at the moment is something that we on this side of the House are very, very concerned about. The increase in funding that is being allocated deals only with salary increases and administrative cost pressure. It does not deal sufficiently with this huge increase in case work that the Office of the Ombudsmen is facing. There has been no movement in staff salaries since 2007. I am glad that the request for extra money will help them to deal with that, but it is not going to resolve the wider issue.
The Office of the Ombudsmen is likely to face significant increases in its workload as a result of public sector reform currently being undertaken by the Government. With rhetoric coming from the Government about moving resources from the back office to the front line, many complaints processes and quality assurance processes are what this Government would deem to be back-office services. So we are going to see more complaints coming through to the Ombudsmen as the resources to provide those vital quality assurance and complaints processes are being choked off from the Government sector.
The Government Administration Committee’s report—and bear in mind that this is a unanimous report from a cross-party select committee, which included National members—reports: “The office believes that reductions in agency complaint service staffing will reduce agencies’ ability to handle complaints, and may adversely affect quality assurance in practice and process, leading to errors or misjudgements, maladministration and, potentially, corruption.” These are pretty strong words to be coming from the Office of the Ombudsmen. These are very strong words to be coming from the Office of the Ombudsmen, and we are not resourcing it sufficiently to act as a safeguard, to act as that check on the use and abuse of power, as it was set up to do.
So at the moment our rhetoric around the importance of the Ombudsmen looks very hollow unless we are willing to actually stump up and provide them with the funding that they need. We are not doing so at the moment. We are not resourcing the Office of the Ombudsmen sufficiently. That needs to be addressed.
CHARLES CHAUVEL (Labour) : It is not often that we get the opportunity as ordinary members of the House to rise to speak about the work of the Offices of Parliament, and I want to take a brief call in this debate in order to be able to do that.
First of all, I acknowledge the importance of their work, because it is not acknowledged often enough. In New Zealand we have an important series of constitutional safeguards that are all about transparency. We do not have entrenched rights except in respect of a few provisions of the Electoral Act, so everything depends, as far as public confidence in our institutions is concerned, on the institutions that we have set up that are designed to ensure that transparency is working appropriately. And if we allow them to fail, if we allow them to become under-resourced, if we allow public confidence in them to diminish, then we will reap the whirlwind, and we will have no one to blame but ourselves as parliamentarians for not making sure that they were able to do their job properly.
I support the motion in the name of the Leader of the House because I do think that we have come to a situation where there are some real issues around the funding of the Offices of Parliament, as has been acknowledged in this debate to date. The motion will go some way to alleviating the situation, but it may not go all the way, and this is an issue that does require our constant vigilance in the House.
Turning first to the Office of the Controller and Auditor-General, I really just want to say two things about the importance of the work of the office. The first is that every member of the House who serves on a select committee will, I think, want to record their gratitude for the excellent work that is done by the staff of the office in helping us prepare for the financial review and estimates process. There is a lot of documentation to wade through when we have a look at the performance of organs and agencies of the executive, and it is absolutely invaluable to be able to know that in most cases, except where there is some sort of statutory exemption or a very unique scheme that applies to the agency of Government, we will have a member of the staff of the Controller and Auditor-General on hand speaking to a written report prior to the commencement of the examination of the performance of the entity, pointing out in particular technical issues around performance that sometimes might escape members when they are looking at the bigger picture around what the political issues of the day are, which might have excited debate concerning the environment of the agency concerned. I think it is, as I say, worthwhile just to place on record how valuable that function is and to record the hope that with the appropriation that will be effected as a result of this motion we will all be able to have that uninterrupted service.
The other thing that I wanted to say about the value of the work of the Office of the Controller and Auditor-General is the power, which we should never underestimate, in the ability to take investigations up on her own motion. My colleagues already mentioned some of the important issues that the Auditor-General herself has decided to take scrutiny of. That, again, is an incredibly important function. Everybody knows that it is a function that is exercised completely independently of politics and politicians, and that it is solely motivated by the desire to ensure that public money is being appropriately spent and that procedures that sit in place to govern the accountability of public entities are being followed. So from that point of view the office does an invaluable job. I am very pleased to be able to put that on record in the context of this debate.
The second entity that is dealt with in the report is obviously the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment. I spent some time in the last Parliament working as the Labour Party spokesperson on the environment and I think what has to be said about the work of the parliamentary commissioner and her team is that they strive for, and succeed in, ensuring that their work is utterly independent and evidence based. So you get very valuable reports from the office. They are meticulously researched and they are also pragmatic as far as their outcomes and recommended courses of action are concerned.
I think of the 1080 report in particular, which made the point in the face of heated public debate that 1080 was simply the best option around to keep the dawn chorus going in our forests. If we wanted our forests to fall silent, then, sure, we could stop using 1080, but unless and until a better solution comes along—and it is many years away—it is the only way that we can keep some biodiversity going in those areas that otherwise it would disappear from.
I think an earlier speaker has mentioned the biofuels report, the incredibly valuable forward-looking work that the parliamentary commissioner did in order to ask what the future of biofuels in New Zealand is in the long term. It is actually our wood resource. As soon as technology is available, that will be something that we must not underestimate as far as the potential for renewables in the fuel sector is concerned. It is incredibly valuable, forward-looking insight and research, and is publicly funded and available to all members of Parliament and to the public. No one told the parliamentary commissioner to do that work; it simply came about because it was a piece of public-good research within her mandate. Again, that is something we should all be very pleased about.
Water quality was in the same position. We should also, obviously, remember that there was an announcement by the former Minister for the Environment last year that the Government had determined that the parliamentary commissioner should be responsible for environmental reporting. We are yet to see the legislation that would effect that change, but at the time the Labour Party said that we would support it, provided that taking on that new function did not involve compromising the existing ability of the parliamentary commissioner to process the important work that she does on a routine basis and to which I have already referred. It is very important to ensure that as the parliamentary commissioner looks forward to taking on that new mandate that the Government wishes to confer upon her—and that I think most Opposition parties are comfortable with—the office is adequately resourced.
Finally, on the Office of the Ombudsmen, we have heard much talk in the debate already about the concerns around the funding of the office. I think it is conceded that much of the problem is created by the Canterbury earthquake situation, and it is hoped that that will simply be a blip on the radar as far as the Ombudsman’s work is concerned. But there are real issues around what has had to give as a result of processing the problems that have been brought to the office by Canterbury and the terrible situation that is being managed there. One of those is the inability at the moment to process case notes, which is very important for people who want to ensure that they can access official information in order to hold the Government to account. They need to know what the rules and what the precedents are. That cannot be allowed to give permanently nor can the existing number of unprocessed and unallocated cases be allowed to become a permanent feature of the system.
The problem that the Ombudsman has told the House about via the Officers of Parliament Committee is not unique to Offices of Parliament. We have a number of other watchdogs where there are crises either in funding or in powers. What we must not do is allow the Human Rights Commission, the Judicial Conduct Commissioner, or the Privacy Commissioner to be compromised either. So I commend this motion to the House, but I do ask that we all bear in mind the importance of the work—
The ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Lindsay Tisch): I am sorry to interrupt the honourable member.
Hon TREVOR MALLARD (Labour—Hutt South) : I rise also to support the motion, although, I think it is fair to say, not quite as enthusiastically as some of my colleagues. I, frankly, think there is a debate about whether this motion should be passed as it sits, especially as we learn more of the range of views expressed by the Chief Ombudsman, Beverley Wakem, as to the amount that is necessary to run that office properly, and as we read of the workload problems and the view of the Government Administration Committee—the unanimous view—that “reductions in agency complaint service staffing will reduce agencies’ ability to handle complaints, and may adversely affect quality assurance in practice and process, leading to errors or misjudgements, maladministration and, potentially, corruption.” That is an area of considerable concern. I think it is fair to say that in New Zealand we do pride ourselves on being No.1, or sometimes No. 2, in the list of least corrupt nations, and that is something we want to jealously guard.
That is not to say that I think all spending on the part of all of these agencies is well spent. I think I have made myself slightly unpopular with a number of colleagues with my views—with a number of my views, actually—[Interruption] Thank you, Rev. Dr David Clark! He knows that interjecting on me like that is—well, he will find out that revenge is a dish best served cold, and I will deal with him later on. But the question of the level of paperwork and of time spent supporting select committees, although it may be appreciated by my learned colleague Charles Chauvel, I think is something—
Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman: Who?
Hon TREVOR MALLARD: He is learned, and the member should know that. The problem I have is that I think that for a lot of members it serves—listening to the Audit Office staff at the select committee in the quarter of an hour before the agency comes in for the review of estimate processes—as their homework. It means that too often members, especially members from that quadrant of the House over there, do not read through the annual reports, they do not read through the questionnaires, and they do not look at the issues properly. I know that it is not a good thing to hark back to the past, but—
Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman: Go on.
Hon TREVOR MALLARD: I will. In the time that I was first a member of Parliament there was one select committee staffer for every two committees, so there was either a Tuesday-Wednesday or a Wednesday-Thursday arrangement, depending on what stage the bill was. The staffer of the select committee had two committees, and if one was really busy one of the other people came and helped. Now we seem to have three staff, and we have augmentation by Audit Office staff coming in. I think some members in a way think it is the job of the Audit Office to tell them what to think. I think that stops them from working hard in their constituencies to identify the issues that are important for estimates and for financial reviews, and that for some people it means they do not read properly the background documentation that is available. So what I am saying there is that I am not for always having more money, if we do not look carefully at how money is spent.
There is another area where I will be later on seeking a level of assurance from the Speaker, and that is that he will, as the chair of the Officers of Parliament Committee, work very hard to ensure that if in fact the mixed-ownership model legislation is passed, the Office of the Auditor-General will retain the audit functions for those partially privatised State-owned enterprises. I think that that is important in having a level of assurance for the taxpayer—to make sure that we have people who have a reputation that I think sits above that of auditors generally, who have that reputation for understanding what the public interest is, involved on a continuing basis. I would be opposed to any reduction in their authority and their ability to investigate.
I might also say—and it goes more to the Ombudsman—that I will be strongly fighting to retain the right of the Ombudsman to become involved in both Ombudsman’s cases and Official Information Act cases with regard to the partially privatised State-owned enterprises. I know that some people will find that pretty hard, but I was involved with both the select committee that set up the State-owned enterprises and the Government Administration Committee, where I chaired a review of the way that those Acts worked vis-à-vis the State-owned enterprises. What we found was that it had been almost no problem, and that there was a very clear understanding of what is commercially sensitive. Frankly, something that is commercially sensitive for Mighty River Power is about the same as for Contact Energy, and there were places where information was not made publicly available. But there are some things that are in the public interest and where it is appropriate to ensure that the State-owned enterprises are doing what they should. My argument is that companies that are majority-owned by the Government certainly come into that category as well, and we should make sure that that continues.
There are a number of areas where I think the Auditor-General can have a better look—than has currently occurred—at policy and developing policy. One of the areas is the private partnership type of model as far as roading is concerned and, in particular, more recently, the arguments for charter schools. There is an enormous question in my mind that goes to value for money, and it asks why we should be building new schools and different schools, using some private financing system, when, in fact, that money could be better applied to improving the schools we have already got. As many of my colleagues know—and some people have been involved when I have been reviewing schools in the past—I am certainly not of the view that everything should always stay the same. I think there is room for progress and there is room for change, and I have some interest in models that can make improvements. But what does appear to be the case is that there is a fixation on the part of this Government, and it should be checked by some property authority with an ability to make recommendations to this House on whether, in fact, these new models get proper value for money; I would support that.
I note that the Hon Maurice Williamson—I understand he in the not too distant future is to be the Rt Hon Maurice Williamson—is sitting in the front row of the Government benches. What I am very keen on is that whoever replaces Mr Speaker in his role—when he moves to his new abode—is slightly more aggressive with the Minister of Finance and engages the team of the Officers of Parliament Committee more in ensuring that the organisations for which the Speaker is responsible get the money they need to properly do the job. I do not want this to be seen as any sort of reflection, but I think it is important that when a parliamentary select committee is doing a job, as this committee has done, it has the full facts and we do not have Offices of Parliament coming with pre-arranged amounts to the committee. We need to hear what they say and what they think. I will support this motion, without much enthusiasm.
- Motion agreed to, and Address agreed to.