John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Weakened watchdog makes democracy weaker

Weaken the Ombudsmen's office and you weaken the fabric of democracy. Photo / Thinkstock
Weaken the Ombudsmen's office and you weaken the fabric of democracy. Photo / Thinkstock

The word "crisis" is not one your average state sector boss will be heard mouthing when asked to describe the state of his or her organisation however dysfunctional it has become.

Chief Ombudsman Beverley Wakem is not a public servant. She is an officer of Parliament. That gives her some latitude to speak out. Even so, the blunt fashion in which she catalogued her office's woes in front of a parliamentary committee surprised many.

Ears pricked up, especially in Opposition quarters, when she talked of her office now being in crisis following three years of "considerable" pressure on funding and staffing and an ever bulging backlog of cases.

The obvious question is whether Wakem's plight is an indication from inside the system that National's freeze on the budgets in the state sector is starting to bite and threaten services to the public - something which National assured voters would not happen.

Furthermore, is National now benefiting from delays in the Ombudsmen ruling on cases taken against ministers who block requests under the Official Information Act?

These questions are extremely pertinent when the public "watchdog" role of the Ombudsmen's office is taken into account. Weaken the office and you weaken the fabric of democracy.

It is for that very good reason that - unlike Government departments and other state entities - the funding of the Office of the Ombudsmen is not in the hands of the Minister of Finance. Or at least not directly.

The office's annual budget is ostensibly set by an Officers of Parliament committee chaired by the Speaker and which includes both Government and Opposition MPs. The committee's recommendations are almost always accepted by the Government and then written into the annual Appropriation Bill,

However, the committee does not have a completely free hand. There is much to-ing and fro-ing between the committee, the Minister of Finance and the Treasury, which gives the committee advice on the criteria set out by the Cabinet for accepting or, as is currently the case, rejecting bids for extra funding.

The upshot is that the Officers of Parliament committee is unlikely to ignore Bill English's Budget parameters which demand a tightening of Government spending. As an example, the committee last year expressed some sympathy for Wakem and her colleagues, saying it was "concerned" about the backlog of unresolved cases. It agreed some of the delays were beyond the Chief Ombudsman's control.

However, the committee was unwilling to "normalise" a temporary $320,000 increase in funding which it had allocated to speed the handling of cases.

However, the likelihood of the office's workload increasing dramatically as a result of the Pike River disaster and the Canterbury earthquakes persuaded the committee to change its mind.

It continued the temporary extra funding for another two years and also raised it by $50,000 to $370,000.

That extra money adds up to a 9 per cent increase over two years. However, it is not guaranteed beyond that.

It also falls a long way short of Wakem's bid for about $1 million to be added to her office's baseline budget of just over $8 million.

If the Ombudsmen's office is suffering, the main reason is because it has been under-resourced for too long. National's freeze on baseline funding may be compounding the problem as the office struggles from one temporary cash injection to the next. It then becomes a matter of patching things up - rather than fixing them for good.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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