Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: The Kohanga Reo 'whitewash' and Hekia Parata

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Hekia Parata. Photo / Ben Fraser
Hekia Parata. Photo / Ben Fraser

It's been labeled a 'whitewash' or a 'brownwash' by opposition politicians and many commentators. Whatever the truth, the Government-initiated report released last week about the Kohanga Reo National Trust has certainly not satisfied critics, or killed off the scandal. Instead it has fueled the fire of 'corruption' allegations, calling into question - yet again - the competence of the Minister of Education, and raising further concerns about the National Government's management of 'political sleaze'.

Parata's role - cover-up or incompetence?

The Minister of Education is being accused of being either incompetent or dishonest in her handling of the Kohanga Reo scandal. She could, of course, be guilty of both - but the question of whether she has been trying to cover-up the scandal or just hasn't understood or handled it well, is the most interesting in the whole affair. For a discussion of this question and a strongly critical account of the whole saga, see Colin Espiner's Parata should be sacked. The key part of Espiner's must-read column is this: 'At best she bungled the entire issue from start to finish. At worst she appears complicit with the trust in its bid to sweep the whole mess under the carpet'.

Espiner is in no doubt that Parata needs to go, saying 'Her performance over this issue is tantamount to a dereliction of her duty to ensure the wise and proper expenditure of public funds in her portfolio. First, she allowed herself to be hoodwinked by the trust into accepting she had no right to inquire into TPO.

Second, she set up an inquiry deliberately designed to fail, at further considerable cost to the taxpayer. And third, she attempted to claim the report's findings as a victory for the trust, even while it sank deeper into a mire of allegations'.

The main reason that a 'cover-up' is being alleged is the National Government set up the official investigation with terms of reference that were written to exclude the actual allegations being examined. Tim Watkin ponders why this might be the case: 'So Parata and Sharples appear to have been trying to hide the truth in the terms of reference they created, and then Parata has been shown to have been simply wrong in her assertions about the Trust and whether TPO receives public money. That's either inept or dishonest. Whether or not the Trust has behaved properly (and it seems to have not), Parata & Sharples both need to be held to account for wasting $90,000 on a report that looked in the wrong place. They failed in their duty and now it's their turn to be held to account' - see: Parata & Sharples detective agency: 'I lost my money at home' - 'Let's look in the car'.

As a further indication of what Watkin thinks is the answer to the 'cover-up or incompetence' question, he says 'the investigation they ordered was a most unsubtle charade; Parata somehow thinking she could say 'look over here', when everyone knew the problem was over there'. And Watkin also points to the interview with John Key and Te Ururoa Flavell on his TV3 programme The Nation, in which they 'both stayed on message' pushing the Parata line that the Government can't investigate the use of 'private money' in a 'private organisation'.

According to the Southland Times the idea that there has been an attempt at a cover-up is undermined by the fact that Parata has a history of incompetence: 'Much as the initial allegations remain unsubstantiated, the pitch of public suspicion is now greater than ever. The best the Government can hope for now is that people regard the setup of the investigation as a matter of screaming incompetence rather than sinister deception. Perhaps, in that respect, Ms Parata's reputation for haplessness might assist. The defence can be that clearly the investigation wasn't a whitewash because, come on, it was never going to wash' - see: A kohanga reo tale of woe.

But interestingly, even National-aligned blogger David Farrar strongly hints - albeit with humour - at a cover-up: 'The first is having an inquiry that did not have the ability to actually investigate the allegations around the subsidiary. It reminds me of the quote from Yes Minister: "Minister, two basic rules of government: Never look into anything you don't have to. And never set up an enquiry unless you know in advance what its findings will be". Ernst & Young have no powers to investigate Te Pataka Ohanga, but the Auditor-General has extensive powers and I believe it would have been far better for the Auditor-General to be asked to investigate' - see: The Kohanga Reo debacle.

Condemnation of Parata

It's not the degree of condemnation of Parata's handling of the scandal that is surprising, but where the criticisms are coming from. Naturally the opposition parties are going strong against her, but the newspaper editorials and rightwing commentators are also critical. For strongly-word editorials, see the Dominion Post's Blame at Hekia's feet, The Press' One calamity too many, and the Herald's Fraud office probe crucial in kohanga reo case - all of which make good points.

Today Matthew Hooton called for Parata to be sacked, and he's joined by other National-aligned commentators, such as Liam Hehir who says, Time for a change for Parata.

So, will Parata get the axe? That's the question asked by Tracy Watkins in Will Key forgive this breathtaking disaster?. See also, Radio NZ's Parata accused of mishandling review.

Government devolution and the private sector

The major complication and complexity of the Kohanga Reo scandal is the argument made by both Parata and the National Trust that the spending allegations concern not the Trust itself but an independent commercial subsidiary, Te Pataka Ohanga (TPO). Essentially the legal establishment of a separate private business has meant that the alleged dubious spending is safe from scrutiny.

This arrangement has outraged most commentators. For instance, Colin Espiner calls this a 'farce' because 'in the case of TPO, its "private" status is a farce: the company's directors are all members of the Kohanga Reo Trust, it shares the same office space, uses the same staff - and is 100 per cent owned by the trust' - see: Parata should be sacked.

Kohanga Reo spokesperson Derek Fox has continued to compare the alleged misspending to that of any spending of public-derived money in the private sector. Tim Watkin outlines his argument: 'Fox repeatedly used the example of a school buying books from Whitcoulls. If a school uses taxpayers' money to buy a book at Whitcoulls and Whitcoulls managers spend that money on a wedding dress or unreceipted koha, is that the public's business? No. Whitcoulls' money is its own'. Watkin reponds by saying 'In short, trying to draw a line between the Trust and TPO is spin of the most irrational kind. It's nonsense. If you apply the relevant facts to Fox's analogy then you need to imagine Whitcoulls as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Education Ministry or this book-buying school. Then it might work' - see: Parata & Sharples detective agency: 'I lost my money at home' - 'Let's look in the car'. Similarly, see Dave Armstrong's Handbagging has just begun.

For the most interesting discussion of the ramifications of this arrangement for National's devolution plans, see Tracy Watkins's very good column Leap of faith to believe Parata. Here's the key part: 'But for Parata to hold such a view should disturb her colleagues as much as it disturbs the public, given her seniority in a government for which devolving hundreds of millions, ultimately perhaps even billions, of dollars to third-party providers is central to its ideology. The debacle surrounding Parata's oversight of an inquiry into spending by TPO could - and should - ring bells about the Government's oversight of spending in a raft of areas, including Whanau Ora, Parata's flagship charter school roll-out, and the massive divestment of social housing to third party providers to name a few'.

Watkins shows how the Kohanga Reo arrangement calls into question the wider integrity, accountability, and transparency of what National is doing in the public sector. Unfortunately for National, this makes the party even more vulnerable to Labour's attempt to show the Government is mismanaging 'political sleaze'.

The scandal also raises questions about the National Government's orientation to Maori. Rachel Smalley comments: 'It reveals the Government was never committed nor interested in this issue. So what does that say about its commitment to Maori and crucially to Maori children in the Kohanga Reo programme?' - see: Kohanga Reo allegations reveal a lot about Govt's commitment to Maori.

The Bigger picture for Maoridom

There will inevitably be some that see the Kohanga Reo scandal as yet another trivial distraction from 'real politics'. And of course there are indeed elements of the sensational about such sagas. Nonetheless, the story raises many issues about shifting alliances and conflicts within Maoridom. Some of this can be seen in Audrey Young's Act now, leaders tell Kohanga.

There are also some important issues and partial-defences raised in columns such as Tahu Potiki's Is Kohanga Reo row a media beat-up? and Dion Tuuta's Kohanga movement needs to survive scandal.

But much more important questions are raised in Morgan Godfery's Wrong questions, wrong answers: the rot in the Kohanga Reo. He argues that 'There's a rot in Maori governance. From poor governance at Maori TV to the Kohanga Reo board, Maori aren't being served'. He also raises questions about political alliances between the National and Maori parties and the Kohanga Reo elite: 'Lastly, what's Parata and Sharples connection to board members? It could be their personal relationships that lead them to protect the board. If you pick apart the fabric of Maori society you'll find important seams that connect and overlap'.

Some will also ask whether there are elements of racism involved in the reporting and analysis of the whole scandal. This gets a partial hearing in Danyl McLauchlan's blog post, Big trouble in little nest. He says: 'I've always sort-of wondered if there's an element of bigotry in all of the criticism directed at Hekia Parata. Is she incompetent? Or does she just attract scrutiny and criticism because she's a successful Maori woman? Well her handling of the Kohanga Reo trust issue has cleared that up nicely: she is totally incompetent. A political naif hiding behind incomprehensible jargon, just like Fox hides behind the principles of Kaupapa Maori that he's doing so much damage to'.

And for a reminder of the seriousness and details of what has been going on, see the following important reports: David Fisher's Trust money lent to senior staff, board, Kathryn King's Kohanga reo boss drained finances, and Felix Marwick and Frances Cook's Trust's tax-free koha payment revealed.

Finally, for humour and insight, see: my blog post Top tweets and cartoons about Hekia Parata and the Kohanga Reo scandal, and Steve Braunias' The secret diary of Hekia Parata.

- NZ Herald

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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