Politics

No alarm? How the ‘no surprises’ policy blights everyone it touches

The Winston Peters superannuation affair has put National’s ‘no surprises’ rules for government ministries and departments in the spotlight. Good, says Ben Thomas: everyone should know just how rotten the policy has become.

We can only imagine how the National Party would have reacted if it was Helen Clark’s office. A crisis meeting would be held to decide which totalitarian regime they’d use as a comparison for the comprehensive “no surprises” briefings that ministers across government received about Winston Peters’ private superannuation details.

What is “no surprises”? It’s not a law. It’s simply a policy. It’s a few airy bullet points from the late 90s that have assumed the weight and gravity of a black hole and threaten to consume the whole notion of a neutral civil service.

No surprises started under the Bolger-Shipley National government as an “expectation” (simply outlined by letter) to government-appointed directors of state owned enterprises and Crown entities, which operate nominally independently.

The expectations under no-surprises are:

  • be aware of any possible implications of their decisions and actions for wider government policy issues
  • advise the responsible Minister of issues that may be discussed in the public arena or that may require a ministerial response, preferably ahead of time or otherwise as soon as possible
  • inform the Minister in advance of any major strategic initiative.

The idea was to mimic the kind of continuous disclosure the government would have as the owner of these companies and entities, but without direct managerial control.

The idea migrated to the core Crown – that is, ministries and departments that report directly to cabinet ministers. The policy is not unreasonable: if a government department is releasing new data under the Official Information Act, it makes sense that the Minister responsible is prepared to make a sensible comment about it.

But as Audrey Young pointed out in her excellent column today, an “issue being discussed in the public arena” should not be a high enough threshold to justify disclosing individuals’ information to ministers by itself.

Individual social welfare cases are by definition off-limits for ministerial comment because of privacy concerns. There is literally no way MSD could have achieved anything by briefing the minister about the Peters affair except to send a reminder email saying “this is an operational matter and you cannot comment for privacy reasons”, which would be extremely insulting to an experienced and competent minister like Tolley.

The Prime Minister has now acknowledged his ministers (and by extension his Chief of Staff) should not have been briefed about Peters. But this is not a one-off. This is systemic rot.

There’s little hope of change, however. The agency responsible for supervising public sector performance, the State Services Commission (SSC), inserted itself into the Peters scandal by briefing its own minister under “no surprises”. Its commissioner, Peter Hughes, is generally regarded as the nation’s best performing civil servant.

Yet his statement explaining why the SSC briefed Bennett verges on dystopian parody. Because the Ministry of Social Development had sought SSC’s advice on how to properly comply with the no surprises rule, the SSC reported to Bennett – who was otherwise completely unconnected – about the advice it had given MSD on how to deal discreetly with this sensitive matter.

Let that sink in for a moment. The State Services Commission, which is meant to be a guardian of public service standards, has been reduced to a Stasi-like informant network for the government of the day; an unprincipled, servile nark of an agency.

Any time a department or ministry seeks SSC advice on a sensitive matter, it can be expected to be the subject of a briefing to the SSC’s minister.

So who made the anonymous tip-off to Newshub? Was it the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff? Was it an MSD whistleblower? Was it someone in Anne Tolley’s office? Was it a well-meaning janitor who was mopping during one of the apparently countless “confidential meetings” on the topic of an old man over-claiming his pension.

There is now a cloud hanging over everyone in government who was informed of the Peters superannuation issue (though the PM says the leak did not come from the Beehive or anyone in the National Party). Bennett was quick to note she told “no-one”, a necessary caveat after a now ex-staffer relayed information from Bennett about charges faced by Te Puea marae chair Hurimoana Dennis’s to a journalist – one illustration of the porousness of ministerial offices.

A run of the mill inquiry by Ministerial Services, as promised by Bill English, is unlikely to turn up anything. All of these players – Eagleson, Bennett and Tolley – had front-row seats during the David Henry inquiry into the leaking of a classified security report in 2015, and the furore over journalists’ movements and phone records being tracked through Parliament by the Prime Minister’s Office.

The subsequent Privileges Enquiry set in place more robust protections for journalists and MPs from prime ministerial snooping, but the evidence provided to the hearing showed just how insecure communications were within the parliamentary precinct. Anyone familiar with that inquiry and its outcome will have covered their tracks in a way that ministerial services will not be able to follow. An automatic check of parliamentary emails and phone records will turn up nothing, and a serious investigator needs to be brought in. However loathsome many people find Peters, information about his superannuation application and subsequent discussions with the bureaucracy must be kept as safe from prying political eyes as your last tax return.

Ben Thomas is a former parliamentary staffer who now works for political PR agency Exceltium. One of his clients in the leadup to the election is the ACT Party. These are his personal views


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