by Kennedy Graham
In February this year, our parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee scrutinised the Foreign Ministry’s financial estimates.
We had just spun out of scrutinising Defence Ministry estimates which showed that two officials had been laid off as a cost-cutting (‘downsizing’) exercise, with sizeable golden handshakes, only to be re-hired a minute after midnight, one on a temporary basis, one permanently. Mistakes were acknowledged. But that is another story. Our opposition empathy knows no bounds.
Until it came time for Foreign Affairs. A register of consultants was up for scrutiny. There is meant to be a tender process. In many, many cases, this did not occur. So, at the first opportunity, I explored this in the House. Over the past two years, 131 consultants have been contracted without tender to the tune of $8 million. That’s your money – $2 per NZ citizen.
The media had picked up on my interest, and published some of the details. Many retired MFAT officials have been hired as consultants on the grounds that they carried unique expertise and talent. I respectfully acknowledged such expert talent but queried whether it might be unique. And I pointed out that the point of tenders is to demonstrate such peerless talent where it might exist.
That was the basis for my Question.
The Foreign Minister was busy attending the Olympics in London so my questions were kindly handled by the Minister for Trade. He offered a range of defences to suit variegated taste.
- This was an operational matter for the chief executive;
- It was a decision of the management, made in the best interests of the process;
- Total tendering would be extremely inefficient;
- Information on financial thresholds for tenders was not available to the Acting Minister (in fact, he had specified a figure moments earlier – citing $50,000).
The stunning affirmation of ministerial policy, however, was in response to the contention that insufficient officials were employed now to advise on diplomacy because so much funding was being funnelled to consultants for advice on diplomacy:
I can assure the member that the types of independent consultant that I am aware of – most of whom I know personally over many years – are people of great international standing, of unrivalled expertise, and of very high integrity. I do not think the member needs to be concerned.
Yes, Minister. Standing, expertise, integrity. I agree, and had said as much to the media the day before. I, too, know many of them personally. Along with the Minister, I worked with them as colleagues as well; indeed sharing an office floor with the Minister and others when we were all MFAT officials in the NZ Mission to the UN in Geneva a few decades back.
But no, Minister, I actually do need to be concerned. Because the point of the question was not the quality of the person but the transparency of the process. The point of public tenders is two-fold – to find the best person for a job, and to demonstrate publicly that no favouritism or subjective bias, however innocent, had occurred in public sector recruitment.
Retiring MFAT officials undoubtedly have experience and expertise, almost by definition. It does not follow that it is unrivalled, or that they are better than, say some civil society experts. I know a small multitude of experts in both circles. They are generally of equal calibre.
It is illogical to claim, as occurred on many occasions, that an MFAT official is uniquely qualified for a consultancy contract. Without a public tender, that cannot possibly be proven, and should never be assumed.
It is time to clean up the process and improve this Government’s act.