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Chris Ford: Political Appointees Are Just The Name Of The Game

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

During the past week, the Otago District Health Board (ODHB) has seen its former chairperson, Richard Thomson, sacked over the scandal that saw $16.9 million virtually disappear into the hands of a former board manager and his accomplice in the biggest state sector fraud in the country's history.

The sacking of Thomson by Health Minister Tony Ryall, has not been welcomed by many in the Otago region. This is due to the unfairness element that has come into play as Thomson, while chair, was the principal actor in undertaking initial background investigations into the fraud committed against the Otago DHB by former IT manager, Michael Swann and his Wanaka-based architect friend, Kerry Harford.

What Ryall has argued is that he wants accountability for the fraud that has, quite rightly, riled the people of the Otago region as well as board members, staff and management, due to the pernicious and devious way in which it was conducted. However, Ryall's actions have encountered hostility due to the fact that Thomson, once alerted to the possibility of fraud, sought to move heaven and earth with management and other actors to stop it from continuing once evidence came to light that Swann's extravagant lifestyle was being fuelled with stolen ODHB funds. Furthermore, Ryall, while opposition health spokesperson, fulminated against the dismissal by former Labour health minister David Cunliffe of the Hawke's Bay DHB in late 2007 on official account of their poor governance and handling of management issues. Ryall at that time sought to defend a board where most of the elected members (including the chair) were either National Party members or, at least sympathisers. It should be unsurprising that one of his first acts on becoming minister was to restore the board.  This factor alone has led to former Labour health minister and Dunedin North MP Pete Hodgson remarking that National has had its "revenge bazooka" trained on the Otago board in retaliation for the Hawke's Bay dismissal.

Before moving on with this blog, I also have to state a personal interest in this matter. Prior to June 2008, I was employed for two years by the Otago DHB within their planning and funding team as a project officer. I was working for the agency when Swann and Harford's fraud was uncovered in 2006. As with most people in the team (and the wider board itself), we knew nothing about the fraud until its disclosure. During this period, I also encountered Richard Thomson in my work role and know him to be a blunt and straight talker and I have to admit that this is not one of his personally endearing qualities either. For all that, people do see what they get from him - an honest assessment of a situation. I might also add that, as the owner of Acquisitions (a lifestyle shop) in Dunedin that he co-owns with his partner, Anita Cessford, he has been a past employer of my mother as well.

Now having disclosed my links with both Thomson and the Otago DHB, I will move forward to discussing my view on why I agree with most people that this has been a purely political move but with the proviso that removing people on narrow pretexts is just the name of the game in politics. And, given Ryall's actions in the Hawke's Bay and Otago cases, Thomson's removal has been sparked by spurious political motives, no doubt about it. The National Government wants to sweep the floor clean in terms of policy and what better way to do it (as Labour Governments have done in the past too) than to either dismiss or not renew the terms of party political appointees on statutory authorities. All DHB board chairs are ministerially appointed and the health minister has the right to either appoint an existing board member or bring in an external appointee. In the case of the Otago DHB with Thomson, he was an elected member who was elevated to the chairpersonship by former Labour health minister Annette King in 2001.

The other factor behind his appointment was most likely his active membership of the Labour Party and Thomson himself disclosed his party membership in a media story published shortly after he was appointed (and it must be noted that his successor, Dunedin businessman Errol Miller, has stated that he is politically non-aligned). The current deputy chairperson (whom I think is also ministerially appointed) is another Labour Party activist in former economics teacher and local government councillor, Louise Rosson. This is not to say that Thomson and Rosson don't have pertinent health sector expertise and experience as in fact they do with Thomson being a clinical psychologist and lecturer and Rosson having been involved with other health and community agencies in the past.

But political appointees, from time to time, do not have the slightest experience of the issues that an agency is working on and this is potentially dangerous. That is one of the many reasons why there have long been calls to end the 'jobs for the boys and girls' patronage appointments to government bodies. It must be stressed that this tradition is not only unique to New Zealand but is also practised in other Western democracies like Canada, the US and Australia. Despite opposition parties continuing to cry foul when their statutory appointees are tossed out by incoming governments after winning election victories by saying the new administration should stop its own patronage appointments, this practise will not stop while the present system of ministerial appointment continues. In fact, it does seem reasonable on the surface of it for governments to appoint people with party loyalties to statutory posts so that a government can then implement its policy priorities within the affected agency and thereby potentially minimise bureaucratic or managerial undermining.

Therefore, so long as the practise of ministerial appointments continues, I believe that in order to promote transparency, accountability and honesty, that all persons with party affiliations appointed to statutory posts should be made to resign (as is the case in the US) on the day that a new government is sworn in so that a new administration can make its own appointments. To complement this, all ministerial appointees and judicial nominees should be brought before a specially constituted parliamentary appointments select committee and scrutinised and then have their nominations voted either up or down as is the case in the US Congress.

However, I'm more of a democratic person in that I believe, for one thing, that all members of district health boards should be fully elected including the chairperson (as half of all members and board chairs are currently ministerial appointees). Furthermore, people should stop hiding behind labels like 'independent' and declare that they are either Labour or National candidates. There is this hoary old chestnut in our local political system that New Zealanders don't like the intrusion of central government party politics into local affairs. This bullshit stance should be discarded as Tories have often been the ones to wear the 'independent' label in council elections while Labour has increasingly shied away from being the only honest party in local politics to actually stand candidates for councils around the country under its own banner.

What it all boils down to is this. People should understand that Richard Thomson in Otago was removed (for spurious reasons) due to the game that is modern politics and while this may not sound fair (and isn't) then, so long as the ministerial prerogative to appoint and fire exists, this is going to continue to be the case. A fully democratic DHB system, though, would have seen Richard Thomson stay on to serve out his current term. It is the people of Otago who should judge him for what he has or hasn't done over the Swann-Harford fraud but the people of the region, like me, won't get that chance.

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