Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Some more equal than others

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If Longstone was incompetent or insubordinate, taxpayers shouldn't pay out anything. If she just up and left, why do contracts allow a payout? Photo / NZ Herald
If Longstone was incompetent or insubordinate, taxpayers shouldn't pay out anything. If she just up and left, why do contracts allow a payout? Photo / NZ Herald

Workers continue to be divided into two classes. A comment from our Prime Minister from South America about another issue involving his hapless education minister, and the debacle at Solid Energy, drives this truism home.

About 99 per cent of the workforce is expected to do their job well. If a worker doesn't perform, they get a couple of warnings to lift their game. If there's no change, they're down the road.

Normally, the employee will get between a week and a month's pay, if their boss doesn't want them to work out their notice. Apart from any unused holiday pay, that's it.

Assuming an employer acts in good faith and follows a fair process, there's not much a sacked worker can do.

And then there's another group of workers, where none of this applies. I use the word "worker" loosely.

Education Minister Hekia Parata and her chief executive, education secretary Lesley Longstone, who had been in the job for just 13 months, parted ways.

A taxpayer cheque was written out for $425,000. That's equal to $8,000 extra payment for each week Longstone actually worked.

Every worker would be wishing they could get that sort of deal.

John Key casually dismissed any concerns, claiming Longstone didn't get anything extra that wasn't in her employment agreement. As if that's a satisfactory response.

It has been alleged that Parata had a "strained relationship" with Longstone. So did she walk or was she pushed? If she was incompetent or insubordinate, taxpayers shouldn't be paying out anything. If she just gave up and left, why do contracts allow a payout? The other scenario is that Longstone was sacked unfairly and therefore entitled to compensation. In that case, the taxpayer deserves an explanation from Parata.

Would any business owner be happy to pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars to a worker with barely a year's service?

It seems that accountability, which this government demands of others, does not apply to them.

This also explains the surreal story about Don Elder, the former chief executive of Solid Energy. He gets paid more than $1 million a year. When he and his board ran the company into near bankruptcy, the Government as shareholder claimed they were kept in the dark. They merely replaced the chair and told us it was all okay now. In the private sector, as Sir Doug Graham found out, directors who get it wrong can get put in the criminal dock.

Under this government though, Dr Elder gets kept on full pay supposedly working from home. Hundreds of his employees, meanwhile, get the sack. Those workers, of course, don't get the severance package that our government and their entities reserve for those at the top.

However, the Government says we may have to tip tens of millions of dollars of tax money to save the company. No sale for Solid Energy it seems.

A friend who owns an executive recruitment company says agencies are paid big money to find senior executives. The higher the remuneration packages, the bigger the cut everyone gets. Successful applicants feed more work to the agency and so the merry-go-round goes on.

Shareholders are told director fees and senior executive salaries must meet the market to retain skills. As we can tell from Solid Energy, and many other examples, this is all fiction.

George Orwell explains it best: Some animals are more equal than others.


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- Herald on Sunday

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