Twyford's efforts overshadowed by messy situation

8:45 pm on 16 December 2018

By Brigette Morten*

Public servants are generally not meant to be seen or heard. Their role is advising the minister and let them take the credit and the responsibility.

Phil Twyford being questioned over housing by Jane Patterson 5/5/15

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Unfortunately, for Phil Twyford, this last week it has been about his head public servants hitting the headlines - distracting from what Mr Twyford actually wanted to say.

First came rumblings that the head of KiwiBuild, Stephen Barclay, hadn't been at work for some time and nobody knew why. We still don't know why. And then came the long-discussed resignation of Fergus Gammie as NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) chief executive.

Phil Twyford, as Minister for Housing and Urban Development, and as Minister for Transport had responsibility for both portfolios.

The absence of Mr Barclay was used by the Opposition to roll out their narrative once again on the number, or lack of, of KiwiBuild houses. They could make accusations that this was yet another sign of chaos within the initiative.

Ongoing questioning from Opposition spokesperson Judith Collins led Twyford to state in the House that it was an "ongoing employment dispute" that had led to the absence.

While the minister is still ultimately responsible for the department's deliverables, he can't influence the management of an employment issue. The Cabinet Manual states that he is not allowed to be involved.

This detail is largely lost to the public, and when you are trying to deliver on your election promise of 100,000 affordable houses in 10 years, you can't afford to be distracted by details such as this.

The resignation of the head of NZTA presents a different headache. It appears that a large number of vehicle testing inspectors were not carrying out their duties to the standards required. Some say that this is the result of a change of focus within the NZTA - overseen by Fergus Gammie.

It is largely less political - the problems that have been discovered were also occurring under the former National government. What is necessary now is to reassure the public that it is being dealt with swiftly and effectively.

The resignation of the chief executive will in some ways allow for some clear air, and allow for the reviews ordered by the minister to continue unhindered by the question of whether a senior head should roll.

The work in both NZTA and KiwiBuild agencies will continue - they both have a number of highly qualified senior public servants to step in to the gap. However, the disruption of not having a settled leader will ripple through organisations already undergoing a lot of scrutiny.

These issues are not connected but for the minister it was a week of rolling revelations and no doubt many questions directed at his agencies. Having one of these issues occur this week would have been bad. Having both was plain messy.

Thankfully for the minister, the parliamentary year has almost drawn to a close. Therefore, there are limited opportunities for the Opposition to attack on these points and may in fact be dealt with before they return in February 2019.

The minister's week is also likely to be forgotten in the political history books. Constituents won't cast their votes in 2020 on the basis of absent chief executives. However, every time the minister has to talk about his heads of department is a distraction from the portfolio of work he is trying to promote.

It also means he is more unlikely to feature highly on any of those "politician of the year" lists.

*Brigitte Morten is a senior consultant for Silvereye. Prior to that she was a senior ministerial adviser to the Minister of Education in the previous National-led government, and an adviser and campaign director for Australia's Liberal Party.

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