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Nick Smith Accused Of Gatecrashing Select Committee

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Nick Smith
Nick Smith

By Maggie Tait of NZPA

Wellington, March 12 NZPA - ACC Minister Nick Smith is being accused of bullying and gagging the organisation's board and management after he appeared at a select committee today instead of the corporation's chairman.

Dr Smith sacked ACC chairman Ross Wilson on Monday, replacing him with former Ernst & Young chief executive John Judge. Dr Smith appeared before the committee today saying Mr Judge was unavailable. No other board members were there.

The transport and industrial relations committee was thrown into chaos over arguments about Dr Smith's appearance. The committee started about 45 minutes late, only opening after the clerk of the house gave a ruling that Dr Smith could speak.

However, only 13 minutes into the meeting the media and public were asked to leave as the clerk was called on again after committee chairman David Bennett ruled out a Labour Party question.

The question was eventually allowed to be asked but proceedings were frequently disrupted when Dr Smith intercepted questions put to chief executive Jan White.

At one point Labour MP Trevor Mallard said the Opposition was being stripped of its right to ask questions if the minister was the only one allowed to answer.

Labour leader Phil Goff later said Dr Smith had "gate-crashed" the committee, his behaviour was "bizarre" and called into doubt his judgement while Labour MP Maryan Street, who sits on the committee, told reporters the situation was inappropriate.

"Not only was he not the minister responsible for the year in review but he seemed to exercise some control over the chief executive (Jan White) which I thought was entirely inappropriate. Bullying is not too strong a word to put on it," she said.

Ms Street said board representatives, even if they were to be sacked, were accountable to the select committee and if the chair was unavailable another member or Mr Wilson could have attended.

"That nobody from the board was there smacks very strongly of gagging."

Ms Street said Dr Smith wanted to control what was said so he could continue to "spin" that the organisation was in trouble.

Dr Smith said Mr Bennett asked for him to take Mr Judge's place.

To say there was any bullying was "just a gross overcooking by the Opposition" and he "totally rejected" that he tried to gag the board.

Asked why the deputy chair or another board member were not invited, Dr Smith said it was because the board was in transition.

"To have some circus in the select committee around board members who might or might not be continuing was not going to help anybody."

Dr Smith said he was ultimately responsible for the financial review that the committee was considering.

"The moment the board is reconfigured (it) would be very happy, and I know Mr Judge, would be happy to appear before the select committee."

Dr Smith was also asked about comments independent consultant actuary Jonathan Eriksen, who runs Eriksen and Associates, made this morning.

The Government says cuts are needed to ACC to bring ballooning liabilities and costs under control.

Mr Eriksen told Radio New Zealand this morning that the value of ACC's assets dropped because liabilities had gone up and because actuaries discount future payments at an interest rate, and rates had been dropping.

However, things would get better when the market improved.

"If you look at it in terms of the big picture it ain't broke and it doesn't need fixing. It's actually doing a superb job in our view of delivering accident benefits to New Zealanders."

Dr Smith said the "big blowout" was principally because of changes in the financial markets but costs had been increasing markedly.

He accused Mr Erikson of sour grapes after he missed out on an ACC contract; "I suspect that's what's motivated his comments" and said there was probably a political motivation as well.

Mr Goff said several commentators had now challenged Dr Smith's "scaremongering" over ACC and said he was trying a similar approach with the Environment Ministry. He questioned if Dr Smith was fit to continue as minister.

"I think you can only cry wolf once and then people start to question your credibility," he said.

NZPA PAR mt nb

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