John Armstrong: Crusher Collins rewrites the sacking manual

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Wielding a calculated, but ruthless combination of raw power and tactical guile, Corrections Minister Judith "Crusher" Collins has torn up the public service rulebook and effectively engineered the sacking of her departmental chief executive.

Technically, she cannot fire Barry Matthews, the long-suffering head of the problem-plagued Corrections Department. But "technically" is not a word in this Collins' dictionary.

Like all ministers, she does not have the power to hire and fire chief executives. That is the job of the State Services Commission. But she is doing the next best thing.

She has made Matthews' position utterly untenable. And she has left the commission - as Matthews' employer - no option but to remove him, assuming he does not resign beforehand.

But regardless of this, Matthews' resignation letter should have been on the desk of State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie yesterday, so damning was the Auditor-General's report on Corrections' management of its parole responsibilities.

The report shows the department failing to follow its own procedures in monitoring potentially dangerous prisoners on parole - procedures tightened after the murder of Lower Hutt father-of-two Karl Kuchenbecker by Graeme Burton in January 2007.

That finding is sufficient for Matthews to have fallen on his sword without prompting. But respite will be shortlived. In place of the sword, Collins has plunged her stiletto into the hapless Matthews.

Matthews is still in his job - but in name only. For all intents and purposes, his scalp now hangs in Collins' sixth-floor Beehive office - a reminder to other chief executives of what might be termed National's "new age of accountability".

Whether Matthews will go before he is pushed could not be ascertained yesterday. Collins' humiliation of her chief executive extended to her instructing him not to comment and leave the talking to her while she tightened the noose.

She asked the State Service Commission to determine who was accountable within Corrections for the failings over parole. That should not take long. Matthews must take the rap even if lower-level staff were responsible.

Collins also requested the commission come up with ways of restoring public confidence in Corrections. The obvious one is Matthews stepping down. Making that inevitable is Collins' refusal to state whether she has confidence in Matthews.

Her reply that she was confident Matthews was "fully aware of how seriously I view this issue" said it all.

Matthews' public flogging is a pretty clear sign that Collins - unlike her predecessors in the portfolio - is not going to try to defend the indefensible. She is not going to be a political casualty of Corrections' ineptitude.

However, the treatment of Matthews also highlights the emphasis the Key Government is giving to public sector accountability.

While Collins was manoeuvring to have Matthews dumped, Health Minister Tony Ryall sacked Otago District Health Board chairman Richard Thomson because DHB was defrauded of millions during his tenure.

But accountability cuts both ways. National can afford to talk big about the buck stopping somewhere because it is still dealing with leftovers from the previous Government - the Auditor-General's report on Corrections being a prime example.

In a year or so, Corrections' problems will be Collins' problem. She is determined to build a "culture of excellence". But if Rome was not built in a day, neither will Corrections be transformed overnight. Prisoners will still escape, inmates will still be breaking the rules and so forth.

Who is accountable then? Collins is setting high standards - ones she, too, will have to keep meeting.

- NZ Herald

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