Editorial: Transparency needed on Pacific deal

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Pacific Affairs Minister Georgina te Heuheu's admitted officials had warned her Peda was risky and untested. Photo / Supplied
Pacific Affairs Minister Georgina te Heuheu's admitted officials had warned her Peda was risky and untested. Photo / Supplied

Devolution of social services to community groups is by no means a bad idea. It holds out at least the possibility of having a more effective impact on social problems than large, impersonal bureaucracies that lack the intimate understanding necessary for success.

That seems to be the spirit in which the Government has embraced the Maori Party's Whanau Ora scheme, albeit tentatively. It is all about people taking responsibility for themselves and dovetails nicely with National's philosophy.

A similar point might be made about the Government's decision to provide funding for Pacific Islanders' development in the 2010 Budget.

The Budget provided $4.8 million over four years to this end. It was a small amount in comparison to Whanau Ora's $134 million over the same period and its aims were, in a sense, more ambitious.

Rather than a grass-roots social welfare initiative, it seemed that this was intended to advance the economic and entrepreneurial skills of Pacific Islanders.

All this is well and good, but unfortunately where the Government's support for Whanau Ora has been tepid, the first steps of this programme have been characterised by confusion and suspicion and have invited plenty of justified criticism.

According to the Budget papers, the money has been allocated to an organisation called the Pacific Economic Development Agency about which very little is known. Peda, as it is called for short, has an impressive-looking website that is long on high-sounding jargon and short on evidence of achievement.

What is known about the organisation is not likely to boost confidence in its ability to handle and account for millions of dollars of public money, much less deliver the hoped-for social outcomes.

Not surprisingly, questions have been asked by the Pacific Island community and Parliament about this organisation and how it came to be chosen for significant Government funding.

The underlying thrust of the questioning is that Peda was assigned the money after a process that was less than rigorous.

Adding a sense of alarm is Pacific Affairs Minister Georgina te Heuheu's admission that officials had warned her that Peda was risky and untested.

Answers from Mrs te Heuhu and Finance Minister Bill English have have proved unsatisfactory, especially as the Government seems to be trying to backtrack and insist the decision has not been made and the grant is still a work in progress.

Mr English said last week that Mrs te Heuheu had gone too far in her Budget statement when she said the money was allocated to Peda. The money had merely been a general allocation for Pacific development and not one dollar would go to Peda until until there was clear agreement on accountability and project outcomes.

Mrs te Heuheu, however, stuck to her guns, insisting her original statement and the Budget papers were correct and, what's more, the Peda money had been approved by Mr English's office.

It does not take too much to identify which of these two versions is correct.

Contrary to what the Finance Minister says, the Budget document specifically allocates the spending to Peda. It does not look like a negotiating position but an outcome. It is hard to escape the impression that in the interests of damage control, the Government is making a lame and obvious attempt to rewrite history.

Which is a pity. What is needed here is a good dose of openness, transparency and accountability. National expended a lot of energy criticising the previous Government on these grounds.

Now it needs to show the courage of its convictions and explain how and why the allocation was made in the first place.

Anything less will feed the fires of suspicion.

- NZ Herald

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