Sunday, May 21, 2017

Accountability: frequently talked about, rarely practised

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 19.)

I’VE BEEN scratching my head trying to recall the number of times when someone in a position of responsibility in New Zealand fell on their sword in atonement for things that went badly wrong.

Conservation Minister Denis Marshall did it after the Cave Creek viewing platform collapse in 1995 and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson stepped down in 2012 over Pike River – in both cases, after commissions of inquiry released highly critical reports.

Those two aside, I struggle to remember any minister, department head or company boss taking the rap for tragedies or adverse events that involved human failure.

Accountability, the long-established principle that someone should be seen to take responsibility for serious mistakes, is frequently talked about but rarely practised. 

When an inquiry panel released its report last week into the Havelock North water contamination scandal that caused 5000 people to get sick and was implicated in three deaths, Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule was quick to absolve himself of any fault. “I didn’t personally cause this contamination,” he said, and of course that’s true. But it’s not the point.

Yule doesn’t seem to grasp that someone in charge has to carry the can, if only symbolically. People expect it. It’s the price that has to be paid for keeping the system honest.

If no one ends up accepting personal responsibility and incurring a penalty, there’s little incentive to make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s why, in the Westminster parliamentary system, ministers bear ultimate responsibility for their departments and are expected to resign if their subordinates fail seriously in their duty.

This applies even though the minister may have had no idea that things were going pear-shaped. The rationale behind the principle is that it puts pressure on ministers to ensure everyone’s doing their job properly.

That creates a culture of rigour and discipline that filters down through the system and keeps everyone on their toes.

At least that’s the theory, and the same principle applies in local government – which is why a lot of people in Havelock North, including the man interviewed on television who spent weeks in hospital and lost 11 kg as a result of bacterial infection, expected heads to roll following the e-coli outbreak. Faint hope, I’m afraid.

For Yule, the timing was unfortunate. My impression is that he has been a very good mayor, which is why voters have repeatedly returned him to office since he was first elected in 2001. But his attempt to distance himself from responsibility for the water contamination is unlikely to win him votes when he stands for National in the Tukituki electorate later this year.

To be fair, he’s not the only high-profile figure anxious to absolve himself of blame for things that have gone wrong on his watch. Former Ministry of Transport head Martin Matthews must have been squirming as the media revealed acutely embarrassing details of the audacious $725,000 fraud perpetrated by his ex-employee Joanne Harrison.

Judging by what’s been reported, there were multiple signs that Harrison was ripping off the ministry. Short of wearing a flashing neon sign saying “I am a crook”, she could hardly have been more brazen.

Yet far from having his career prospects damaged by the scandal, Matthews was rewarded with a promotion to the position of Auditor-General – a job in which he’s required to make sure no one misuses taxpayers’ money.

The irony is exquisite. Please, no one tell John Oliver, the irritatingly smug US-based TV host who loves nothing more than poking fun at quaint little New Zealand.

It’s not only in the public sector that bosses manage to evade responsibility for shocking failures. No one took the blame or paid a penalty for the tragic collapse of the CTV building in the 2011 Canterbury earthquake, despite damning evidence of professional dereliction.

Ditto the 2010 disaster at Pike River, where the families of the 29 dead miners still cry out for justice. Again there was clear evidence of multiple failures at multiple levels, but only token penalties were imposed.

Why does it seem so hard to establish culpability for catastrophic mistakes? One possible explanation is that as bureaucracies grow bigger and more amorphous, lines of accountability become blurred and blame becomes harder to sheet home.

Management structures sometimes seem designed to protect and insulate people. Responsibility gets diffused and the smoking gun, if there is one, is buried so deep that official inquiries never seem able to find it.

And in the meantime, public confidence in “the system” continues to be steadily eroded. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Was the wrong person on trial?

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 17.)

I can’t help wondering whether the wrong person was on trial in the Whanganui District Court last week.

The name on the charge sheet was that of Kerry James “Chester” Borrows, who was tried on a charge of careless driving causing injury. But it seems to me there were other charges that could equally have been brought as a result of an incident that occurred during an anti-TPP protest in March last year – only not against Borrows.

For example, there’s a charge of disorderly behaviour and another of obstructing a public way.

I’m not a lawyer, but it’s surely not too much of a stretch to argue that a person deliberately stopping someone else going about their lawful business is acting contrary to public order, which is how my dictionary defines disorderly behaviour.

As for an alternative charge of obstructing a public way, anyone watching the TV news last week, and seeing exactly what happened in Whanganui on March 22 2016, could form their own conclusions.

Borrows, the National MP for Whanganui, was driving out the entrance of a motor inn with cabinet minister Paula Bennett in the front passenger seat. Several protesters were standing by the gate holding placards.

The TV camera showed two women stepping out into the path of the approaching car with the apparent intention of forcing it to stop. At least two police officers were standing by, but did nothing to intervene.

The car was moving very slowly. There was some dispute in court as to whether it actually stopped at one point, but it was certainly moving when it came into contact with the two women.

A police witness estimated the car’s speed as 1kmh – far slower than walking speed. Borrows testified that he feathered his brakes, as he was trained to do in similar situations during his 24 years as a police officer.

In any event, the protesters had ample time to get out of the way. They chose not to.

Let me repeat: they chose not to. They seemed to think their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership gave them the moral right to prevent two elected public officials going about their lawful business.

Predictably enough, the vehicle nosed into them. One of the women rather theatrically testified that she thought: “Oh my god, you’re going under, girl.” At this point the police on the scene were roused from their torpor and belatedly moved the women out of the way

It looked to me as if the protesters were playing a game of chicken. Even if they weren’t exactly willing the car to hit them, they seemed to be at least daring it to happen.

That impression was reinforced when one of them, having been pulled clear, shrieked in the direction of the TV crew: “Did anyone get that on camera?”

You could be excused for wondering whether she had set the situation up for exactly that purpose. The idea of public protests, after all, is to get noticed – and what better way to attract public attention than by being hit by a car driven by a government MP and carrying a high-profile minister?

You can imagine the posts on social media that would have followed: “Frail elderly woman mowed down in callous act of Tory brutality.”

Borrows testified that the reason he didn’t come to a complete halt was that a male protester at the scene had earlier made threats against Bennett on Facebook. To be precise, the protester had written: “See you shortly, bitch”, which surely tells you something about the calibre of some anti-TPP protesters.

He had also a posted a picture of a dildo with Bennett’s name on it. Borrows testified that he thought it was a wooden dildo which, if thrown at Bennett – as had happened to her fellow minister Steven Joyce at Waitangi only weeks before – could have done damage.

In acquitting Borrows, the judge cited the dildo threat as an extenuating factor. She accepted that he had valid reason to be concerned about Bennett’s comfort, if not safety.

So Borrows got off.  But why was he prosecuted in the first place? I’ve seen it suggested that the police proceeded with the charge against him for fear that they might otherwise be seen as going soft on a former cop – hardly a compelling reason.

And why did the police take no action against the protesters, whose injuries (they were both treated for soft tissue damage) were the direct result of their own provocative and arguably unlawful behaviour? If a case could be made against Borrows for careless driving, they should surely have also been charged for their own contributory role.

Come to that, why did the officers on the scene not step in earlier to prevent the pantomime? Have they been disciplined or reprimanded?

In the end, the outcome was the right one. But it should never have come to that point, and Borrows can hardly be blamed for sounding bitter about his former colleagues in uniform.   

Monday, May 8, 2017

St John and the cult of managerialism

(First published in The Dominion Post, May 5.)

I thought it significant that in Consumer’s recent comparison of emergency survival kits on the market, the one that scored worst by far was marketed by the St John Ambulance organisation.

Its “Emergency Grab Kit” got a scathing “fail” from Consumer, with a score of 38% – far below any of the six other kits tested. How humiliating for an organisation that traces its history back to the 12th century, when the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem looked after sick and injured pilgrims to the Holy Land.  

What was almost comically ironic was that the St John emergency kit didn’t even include a first-aid kit – this from an organisation that’s synonymous with emergency medical assistance – or food rations. And to make matters worse, the pack wasn’t cheap ($200 compared with one at $85 and another that costs $139).

In a sense, it’s a betrayal. People buying an emergency kit bearing the name of St John are entitled to expect that it will set the standard for all others. In fact it appears the reverse was true.

You have to ask: how could an organisation with St John’s proud record end up in such a state?

Let me hazard a guess. It’s been corporatised.

What typically happens is this. Organisations like St John start out as voluntary. They are run on the smell of an oily rag by enthusiastic, committed amateurs whose only reward is the satisfaction that comes from doing good for the community.

No doubt that’s still true at the grassroots level. But what happens as such organisations grow is that they reach a point where enthusiastic amateurism no longer cuts it at the top level. They evolve into bureaucracies.

They adopt all the trappings of the private sector. They acquire a flash office in Wellington and they hire professional managers, public relations consultants, fundraisers, marketers, website designers, health and safety trainers and HR advisers.  They also recruit university-educated careerists whose lack of life experience doesn’t stop them from wanting to re-invent the wheel.

In other words they get corporatised. With this come expense accounts, corporate credit cards, business-class travel and company cars. Along the way, the purity of purpose that originally motivated them tends to get diluted.

They also get contaminated by the deathly cult of managerialism, with its key performance indicators, meetings, values statements, general control freakery, risk avoidance, more meetings, arse-covering, preposterous jargon, more meetings and bitchy office politics.

Of course an organisation as large and complex as St John requires an appropriate management structure. The danger is that as these organisations grow bigger and more unwieldy, they became so pre-occupied with the minutiae of management that they lose sight of their core functions. Management becomes an end in itself.

If they are partly funded by the state, as many are, things get more complicated, because government bureaucrats create hoops for them to jump through. So they hire more people to ensure compliance with the government’s requirements – which might include, for instance, paying someone to come up with Maori names for everything they do, even though no one ever uses them.

Under the headline Vision and Values on the St John website, for example, you see things like: “We Make It Better – Whakawerohia. We find solutions – step up, own it, do it.”

There it is, right there: management psycho-babble that means whatever you want it to mean.

All this, needless to say, gobbles up money that might otherwise be used for whatever purpose the organisation nominally exists for.

In the meantime, the faithful and tireless people at the grassroots go on doing what they have always done. But the corporate head office grows gradually more distant and disconnected from its original ethos, and the people at the grassroots feel powerless to influence decisions and policy.

I’m not saying this has happened at St John, but it has certainly happened to other organisations in the not-for-profit sector – for example the IHC, a $280 million-a-year behemoth whose head office sometimes gives the impression of being unaccountable to faithful, long-serving members.

Some would say New Zealand Rugby has gone down a similar path, moving ever further from the game’s muddy amateur roots.

Is the same true of St John? I admit I can’t be sure, but the fact that the organisation couldn’t put together a basic emergency kit – or worse still, perhaps couldn’t be bothered – suggests it may have lost sight of what most of us assumed it existed for. 

Perhaps Jack London was right

(This is a slightly longer version of a column first published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, May 3.)

Willie Nelson turned 84 a few days ago. Remarkably, he’s still performing.

That he’s even alive after an often turbulent and reckless life is an achievement in itself, and one that sets him apart in a business not commonly associated with feats of longevity.

Nelson is unusual in that he was something of a late starter. He initially won recognition as a songwriter and was well into his 40s before anyone took notice of him as a singer and guitar player.

Perhaps there’s something to be said for long incubation periods, because musicians tend to follow the reverse pattern.

Jimi Hendrix would be 74 if he were still alive today. Jim Morrison of the Doors would be 73, John Lennon would be 76 and Elvis Presley 82. But of course they all peaked early and died relatively young.

I sometimes wonder how they would have turned out had they lived longer.

I suspect they wouldn’t have aged well. In fact clear signs of decline had already appeared in the latter three, and even Hendrix seemed to have lost his way musically when he died at 27. His most creative years already seemed behind him.

Perhaps he would have become another Miles Davis, who revolutionised jazz trumpet in the same way that Hendrix did the electric guitar, and who went on exploring new musical paths for decades. We’ll never know.

Lennon never scaled the same heights as a solo artist that he had achieved with the Beatles, and Morrison – grossly overrated even in his prime, if you ask me – didn’t seem to have much gas left in his tank when he took himself off to Paris in 1971, where he died of a heroin overdose.

As for Presley … well, what can you say? He was still only 42 when he died, but he was bloated musically as well as physically and the hits had stopped coming.

If you wanted to be cynical, you’d say all four probably did their image a favour by dying young. Because the evidence suggests that most pop and rock stars enjoy a few glorious years of peak creativity – sometimes described as their “imperial phase” – after which they go into decline.

“Intensity and longevity are natural enemies,” the American novelist Jack London is supposed to have said, and there’s ample evidence that he was right, at least when his aphorism is applied to music.

Steve Winwood was hailed as a genius in his youth. He was barely 17 when he wrote and sang Gimme Some Lovin’ for the Spencer Davis Group, and even then he had enjoyed a string of earlier hits. But he hasn’t done anything notable for decades.

Jimmy Webb wrote some deservedly enduring and richly evocative songs (Up, Up and Away, By the Time I Get To Phoenix, Wichita Lineman, MacArthur Park – in the late 60s and early 70s, but who can name anything of significance that he’s done since?

Neil Diamond? Stevie Wonder? Elton John? My case rests. And of course we can only speculate on what Buddy Holly and Sam Cooke might have achieved had they not died young, but perhaps they too had already peaked. 

Neil Young confronted the transience of rock stardom in his 1979 song Hey Hey, My My, with its famous line: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. At the time, Young wasn’t sure how much longer his career would last. The rise of punk threatened to displace ageing folk-rockers like him, and he was deeply affected by the death of Presley two years earlier. 

The irony was that Hey Hey, My My and the album it was taken from, Rust Never Sleeps, revitalised Young’s career. Today he’s one of the few survivors of 1960s rock who still commands respect for continuing to push himself in new directions.

A few others manage to keep the flame burning. Bruce Springsteen still seems to have genuine fire in his belly, more than 40 years after his first hit. David Bowie was exploring new territory up to the very end. Bob Dylan still seems to find fresh things to say, and fresh ways to say them (his latest album consisted of standards from the American Songbook). Even Brian Wilson, the unstable genius behind the Beach Boys, is enjoying a long Indian summer and still seems motivated to create.

On the other hand there are those who virtually become self-parodies. It may be heresy to say this, but Eric Clapton these days just seems to go through the motions.

He’s still idolised, but no one daubs “Clapton is God” on London walls anymore. The incandescent talent that he displayed with the Yardbirds and Cream in the late 1960s, when he seemed to discover guitar notes that no one had ever heard before, soon faded.

Then there are the Rolling Stones, similarly still trading on their past glory – which, to be fair, is all their fans want.

No one goes to a Stones concert expecting to hear interesting new material. The band haven’t had a major hit since the 1980s and on their most recent album, Blue and Lonesome, regressed to their early 1960s roots by recording songs by black bluesmen including Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf Burnett and Jimmy Reed.

The Beatles had a slightly longer imperial phase than most, starting in 1963 and peaking in 1967 with the Sgt Pepper album. Their musical evolution over those four years – with guidance from their inspirational producer, George Martin – was astonishing, but by the time of their double White Album in 1968 you could sense that their best was behind them.

They were sounding less like a cohesive unit than four individuals pursuing their own projects. Most notably, the extraordinary chemistry that had made Lennon and Paul McCartney the most successful songwriting team of the rock and roll era had evaporated.

When the band released their Abbey Road album in 1969, it didn’t consist of songs so much as fragments of songs, few of which sounded as if they had been fully developed. That’s probably because Lennon and McCartney depended on each other for ideas and inspiration, and would turn to each other when they got stuck. But by Abbey Road, the two were pulling in different directions (there’s a continuing debate as to whether Yoko Ono was to blame for this) and the magic had gone.

But back to those rock stars whose imperial phases ended abruptly in death. “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse” was a famous line from the 1949 movie Knock on Any Door. The words are often wrongly attributed to James Dean, no doubt because they're strangely apt in his case.

Dean died in a high-speed car smash at the age of 24, after just three movies. A death wish? Who knows? He was, by all accounts, a troubled man. But certainly he got out at his peak, and in doing so ensured his memory would forever remain fabled.

Dean was eternally preserved as his fans wanted to remember him – a bit like Hendrix, Morrison and the rest.  But what a price to pay for immortality.