Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Deadly errors no problem for officials on pedestal

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The Urewera raids revealed the cluelessness among sections of our police force. Photo / NZ Herald
The Urewera raids revealed the cluelessness among sections of our police force. Photo / NZ Herald

In a democratic society we elect our politicians who, in turn, employ a bureaucracy of professionals to carry out their decisions.

Things have happened recently that make me wonder about the line between those we employ as public servants and their accountabilities.

I've written about the conduct of some sections of our police force and their legal advisers in terms of the Urewera raids and the Dotcom fiasco.

This week, 21 gangsters got off because the police seemed to think the law didn't apply to them. Mistakes are made, of course, but it's the level of incompetency that should disturb us all. How did they not know that faking a prosecution against an undercover officer could turn pearshaped?

The overreaction of the ninja uniforms terrorising the Urewera population, and the commando assault on an individual's home, is one thing.

But it's the continuing dripfeed of basic systematic cluelessness on the part of our public servants, all the way to the top of the bureaucracy, that is alarming.

We are constantly assured by our politicians that we need to pay our senior civil servants up to 10 times more than the average taxpayer earns because we need the best. We are told that we could pay them less when they had a job for life, but now they are treated like their private-sector colleagues who can be sacked at any time if they don't perform. Really?

When was the last time we heard of a senior public servant getting the sack? Even when they retire with gold-plated pensions they still manage to get perk appointments.

I don't particularly mind them getting paid a lot of money if they are good at their job - they are workers after all - but what I do resent is they seem to feel they can do whatever they like and when they mess up nothing happens.

The extreme example was the judge in the Christie Marceau case, who let the kidnapper out on bail about 300 metres from his victim. She and her parents were rightly terrified of this assailant and begged the judge not to release him.

The cops stridently opposed bail. Even his mother said she thought he was a danger, and her daughter moved out of the family home through fear. With that background, I wonder how anyone could have granted bail.

I'm told by friends who associate with judges that they really are an odd lot. They don't mix with the rest of us because it may compromise their objectivity, which I think means they fear they may be compromised by association with the riff-raff. I kind of understand that reasoning but I can't help thinking that makes them less in touch.

I'm told that judges are under a lot of pressure, just like a surgeon in an emergency room, and mistakes will happen.

This is nonsense on two levels. First, if health professionals make a mistake and someone dies there is an investigation and the culprits may lose their job and career.

Here we have a situation where a judge is dealing with a violent kidnapping of a girl at knifepoint by a man who stripped and terrorised her. The victim, the victim's family and the cops strongly opposed bail.

I'm told the judge feels terrible and probably has had sleepless nights. Poor thing. What about the parents who, I bet, have had sleepless nights every night since her death?

In the private sector, does anyone doubt that an employee who ignored all advice and made a contrary decision that led to the death of someone would not have been sacked?

Our senior public servants get paid oodles of money, they receive all the trappings of power, but it looks to me like there are no consequences no matter how incompetent they are, and then they retire with benefits that the rest of us can only dream about.

We blather on about one law for all when it comes to race, but it's clearly another set of rules when it comes to our senior public servants.

- Herald on Sunday

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