Over the last two days in The Press, journalists have been retracing the events that lead to the Auditor General being ousted by Parliament in what is potentially one of the most worrying challenges to an official who is supposed to be left alone. They are retracing events that potentially call into question the independence of the most powerful watch people in New Zealand. And which is being called an unprecedented breach of the constitutional framework.
When the Auditor General’s office is tasked with a job, the outcome of it is something New Zealanders – apolitical or not – should pay attention to. It is the work of an office whose primary role is to ensure that New Zealand public entities do their job, are accountable for the work they do and are at their most efficient – so says the official description on the website for the Office of the Auditor General.
Martin Weavers was effectively made to resign to preserve himself after Members of Parliament told him the alternative was to be labelled disabled. It stems from a fraud case that happened at a Government department he had been head of prior to becoming Auditor General, a role which Mr Matthews is meant to act as the chief watch dog for fraud. Parliament thought he was not fit for the role. A hearing where he was not allowed to have any witnesses speak for him was considered hostile and when he was informed the following day that he was not fit for the role and that Parliament wanted him gone, his lawyer challenged the then Speaker of the House David Carter on the grounds. Mr Carter said because he was disabled – which Mr Matthews said is simply not true.
In 2018 Mr Matthews’ legal team consisting of former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, his lawyer Marie Scholtens and former National Party Attorney General Paul East continued fighting for him. Mr Palmer said that in effect the case had led to a “weaponised” environment in the Officers of Parliament Committee.
Current Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard has refused to reopen the case. But Mr Matthews is now petitioning Parliament to reopen his case. National Party Member of Parliament Nicola Willis accepted the case after Labour M.P. Grant Robertson failed to do so.
I believe Parliament have in effect attacked the independence of the watch dog in treating Mr Matthews in the manner that they have. It appears that Members of Parliament seem not to understand this is a matter that might affect Mr Matthews’ rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, 1990. Furthermore, only four grounds are set out as potential grounds for removal of the Auditor General and none of those were obviously met in making Mr Matthews’ resign in 2017.
This leads to questions which need to be asked of Parliament:
- Will Parliament account for its actions in an appropriate setting
- If Parliament is found to be in the wrong for having treated Mr Matthews like that will they accept the findings
- Will moves be made to strengthen the Office of the Auditor General so that future such attacks cannot happen
- Who will make sure that this happens