7 Mar 2023

Public sector boss Steve Maharey has offered to resign - Health Minister

1:25 pm on 7 March 2023
Former minister of broadcasting Steve Maharey speaking at the People's Commission on Broadcasting in Wellington.

Former minister of broadcasting Steve Maharey speaking at the People's Commission on Broadcasting in Wellington. Photo: supplied / CBB

Public sector boss Steve Maharey has offered to resign over political comments, Health Minister Ayesha Verrall says, but she's waiting on advice on whether to accept it.

Maharey is chair of drug-buying agency Pharmac, ACC, and Education New Zealand. A former Cabinet minister for Helen Clark's Labour government, he also writes a regular opinion column.

The spotlight has fallen on politicised comments he made in the column after the summary firing of Rob Campbell from chairing roles at Te Whatu Ora (Health NZ) and the Environmental Protection Authority after comments made on social media.

Speaking to reporters ahead of a caucus meeting this morning, Health Minister Ayesha Verrall confirmed Maharey had offered to resign over his own comments, but said she still had confidence in him and was seeking advice from the Public Service Commission.

"The Public Service Commission is currently considering those matters. I have confidence in Steve Maharey because the situation is extremely different."

Labour MP Dr Ayesha Verrall

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

She said the situation was quite different to that of Campbell, echoing comments made by Prime Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday.

"With Mr Campbell he called the leader of the opposition stupid, and he implied his policies were racist. While he apologised to me he then doubled down on those criticisms in the press. Mr Maharey has reached out and been contrite, and we'll take the advice of the public sector commissioner.

"The key issue is that after breaching the code of conduct and [Campbell's] subsequent refusal to step back from that, I had lost confidence in him."

ACC Minister Peeni Henare said he had not sought advice from officials about whether Maharey's comments were appropriate.

"I have spoken to him and I continue to have confidence in him and the board," he said. "We spoke about a number of matters - obviously the issue that's at hand here - we spoke about my expectations of him and the board and that was about it."

Education Minister Jan Tinetti was less confident, saying she had sought advice and stood by the codes of conduct.

"He has spoken to the prime minister and he has said that he regrets what has been said so I'm waiting to see what comes through from the PSC.

"Codes of conduct that exist there, they are there for a reason and we must make sure that our people in those positions are politically neutral. I would like to wait till that advice comes through to me.

"I'm reserving my judgment at this point."

National leader Christopher Luxon suggested the government should be sticking to the hard-line approach taken with Campbell, saying he should "absolutely" resign.

"It's the same principle that we talked about with Rob Campbell. In New Zealand, we want to have an impartial public service. It's really important.

"We don't believe in an American politicised public service where we make appointments each time under each successive government and he's got a clear code of conduct. Big governance job as a chair, he needs to understand those obligations."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

He said it was a mistake not to be accepting Maharey's resignation if it had been offered.

"Well, it is a mistake. I say the only difference here is that, you know, he's Chris Hipkins' former boss and so there's a relationship there and I just say to you, it's the same principle."

The party's Public Service spokesperson Simeon Brown was on the same page.

"The reality is he has breached the impartiality rules. Prime minister's accepted that but it seems like there's a protection racket going on in the beehive for Hipkins' old boss," Brown said.

He said Maharey offering his resignation was the right decision and "he should have done that yesterday", and the government should not need to wait for advice from the Public Service Commission.

Simeon Brown

Simeon Brown. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"This is a protection racket, it's phone a friend, so you've got Steve Maharey calling ... his old employee at the Beehive rather than calling the Public Service Commission or talking to his actual ministers. This is a protection racket rather than accountability.

"Steve Maharey's a political operator right, he's been around this place, he knows how the rules work, and he should have followed those. so he wasn't doing this from any position of naivety, he's certainly someone who knows exactly what he's doing."

Brown, who has been calling for reductions in spending on consultants and criticising the government over increases in the public sector workforce, said these kinds of situations should be dealt with more efficiently.

"This should be dealt with much more efficiently. You know, that column was in January - there's questions that need to be asked and we've got the public service commissioner before the select committee tomorrow morning for annual review which I'll be asking questions around what actually happened in the timeline around that."

Hipkins himself offered some clarification over that timeline and why Maharey's political comments were not picked up earlier.

"It's quite possible that nobody relevant noticed them, so when they were drawn to people's attention, you know, subsequent action has been taken about that."

"I'm aware that he's been writing columns, I wasn't aware of the particular columns in question. My understanding is that most of his columns have been fine but there may be one or two of them where he's gone a bit further, in terms of his political commentary."

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins

Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Maharey was a "very good public sector governor" and the situation was different to that of Campbell, Hipkins said.

"He's got a lot of relevant experience and I think he's doing a good job.

"I would not ask for his resignation in these circumstances. He's made a mistake, he's apologised for it and he's indicated he's not going to do it again."

Public Sector Minister Andrew Little, when he was minister of health, had appointed Campbell and said he did not regret it.

"At the time we were recruiting for that role, we needed somebody who had a depth of experience in governance and was used to dealing with large organisations with large budgets and Rob was keen to do the job and he was appointed for that reason.

"Look, I think he is kind of illustrating who he is, I guess, but look - he was in the role, he was appointed for the right reasons, he's demonstrated that he's not suitable in a public service role and the Minister of Health has made the right decision in my view."

Verrall was similarly unrepentant about her approach, including her repeated refusals last week to answer questions on Campbell's dismissal.

"I made a statement that set out all the key reasons for my decision including breaching the code of conduct, and the fact that I had lost confidence in his ability to run our health system.

"I think that the statement laid out the decision very clearly but what I wasn't going to get into was all the back-and-forth with Mr Campbell that we've seen over the last week that really were on issues not to do with his governance of the health system."

"I think Rob Campbell has been vocal enough on this issue for the both of us."

Hipkins said he expected his ministers to make themselves available to the media, but "that doesn't mean they're going to be available for every interview request".

"Like I've said I expect my ministers to make themselves available. I'm not going to manage their diary for them, though."

Maharey has not yet responded to requests for comment.

Luxon says a National government could have 'some' working groups

Hipkins went further in defending the increased spending on consultants and contractors by government ministries agencies, following up on comments to the media this morning and yesterday afternoon.

Some of the increase had been justified, he said.

"In some cases, it's justified; in some cases, there aren't alternatives. So for example, if you if you're building a new school or building a new road or doing an IT project, those are workforces where by and large if you want that work done you have to get someone in to do it.

"It does go wider than that, and so that's why I think the hard and fast rules aren't always helpful."

"Look, I've done the hard and fast, you know, sweeping statements and opposition in the past. One of the challenges is, if you look at the areas where consultants and contractors tend to dominate the workforce, it is in areas where we're going to need to be doing more.

"Given the choice between, say, not building a new school or building a new school but having to rely on the contractor workforce to do that, I'll still build the new school."

He said the previous National government had brought in a cap on the number of public servants, which had led to an increase in consultants and contractors, and Labour had brought in stronger reporting requirements as a result.

Since then, some government processes had changed after the Novopay system for managing teacher salaries faced major problems after going live, leading to repeated delays in paying many teachers. Hipkins said independent review processes were now in place to pick up such problems ahead of time.

Luxon acknowledged there was a need "for some consultants" but argued cuts could and should still be made.

"What we're saying is let's cut and cap it by $400 million. At the same time, we've now got 14,000 more public servants in the system - is their job just to coordinate the consultants?

"Let's be clear about what's happened is we've added 14,000 more public servants to to Wellington and at the same time we've got a culture that started to say: if you're a public servant, you can now go out as a contractor at a higher rate.

"We've had endless working groups, taskforce reviews, we've got a culture where we've embraced a lot of consultancy. It's very simple to me, you cut it, you cap it, you measure it, you then hold it, you promote it, you publish it, and then you hope people accountable."

He said National would not be introducing working groups to the same degree Labour had.

"We might have some working groups to tick around, or advisory panels, that sort of stuff. But what I'm telling you right now is this has been a joke, I've had a governance had 282 working groups, and hasn't got anything done, outcomes have got worse.

"The major issue that we've got is this government has taken away targets and it's really important that every public servant comes into work today and is very clear about what they're there to do and what they're trying to achieve.

"We're going to be in a turnaround job when we get to government on October 14 [election day] and I want each of my ministers to be ready to go from day one about the two or three things they're doing in their portfolios to move.

"Don't you worry, we know what we're doing. And we're gonna hit this job with ministers knowing what they're doing, rather than outsourcing things to consultants and outsourcing things to working groups."

Little said there were many reasons the public sector reliance on consulting had expanded.

"This is a government that is doing a lot of things, when you do reform work it's short-term work and you're typically getting people on a short-term basis, which is why consultants and contractors are better equipped to do that.

"When you're doing a lot of things and you're doing big reform work - including having safe water and safe stormwater, when you're doing health reform, when you're doing RMA reform - addressing long-standing problems with a statutory framework that's going to last decades, it's long, complex work and you're typically getting people with very specific expertise to do that work."

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