John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: At the top, no one makes a sacrifice

Hekia Parata. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Hekia Parata. Photo / Brett Phibbs

In a perfect world, Hekia Parata would have offered her resignation from her Education portfolio yesterday.

The report of the top-level inquiry into the Novopay debacle confirms Wellington's worst-kept secret: that in spite of years of restructuring and retrenchment designed to produce a smarter, more efficient public service, the Ministry of Education somehow escaped such scrutiny and review.

The ministry was thus an accident waiting to happen - a $24 million one in the Novopay case in terms of going over budget.

The report is so scathing of the competence of the ministry that it demands some kind sacrifice - even a symbolic one, such as a resignation offer that the Prime Minister could choose not to accept.

Such an offer - to no-one's surprise - was not forthcoming from Parata. The Education Minister was able instead to shield herself behind the report's finding that ministers were not well-served by officials especially with respect to advice in a ministerial paper last June.

That document urged ministers to give the go-head to "go live" with the new payroll system despite acknowledging that "some matters still need to be addressed" and that there would be other "issues" when the project went live.

Forcing a snap debate in Parliament, Labour and Green MPs pondered why ministers had not asked questions about what those matters and issues might be.

It is a fair question. Steven Joyce, the minister in charge of Novopay, argued at a press conference - a press conference notable for Parata's absence - that ministers could not challenge everything officials said otherwise they would get nothing done.

However, Opposition MPs noted an effective minister would have zeroed in on such bureaucratic obfuscation, knowing it spelled danger and officials had something to hide. That was why ministers were paid such large salaries. Parata simply had not done her job.

But there is another reason Parata should have offered to go. The report paints a picture of incompetence by the ministry in its handling of the Novopay contract and the roll-out of the new payroll system.

It is the classic case of the minister not being to blame for that incompetence, but as it was happening under her watch, she should take responsibility for it. That is a subtle but important distinction. Parata has proved that such idealistic notions of ministerial responsibility are long dead.

- 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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