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Gordon Campbell on taking the fall for Anne Tolley

Gordon Campbell on taking the fall for Anne Tolley

Anyone looking for a textbook case of the apparent politicisation of the public service need look no further than the case of former Northland kura principal Debroah Anne Mutu, who became a potential embarrassment for then-Education Minister Anne Tolley, six weeks out from the election.

The initial RNZ report had cited a claimed lack of quality controls in education appointments – as exemplified by an already suspended former kura principal in Northland being appointed to a specialist advisory job with the Ministry. In the House, Tolley came out with all guns blazing on October 6th and branded the original RNZ story as being “completely false” in that no person who fitted such a category was currently in an advisory position.

Right. It now transpires that the distinction was a largely semantic one. Mutu – though not named in the original story – had been suspended for a year, had then resigned and was then appointed to an advisory role. So, in fact, she didn’t fit the exact category as described on RNZ in that she wasn’t still under suspension when appointed.

However, there were ongoing disciplinary proceedings going on within the teaching profession. The main reason we now know this is because both Deborah Mutu and her husband John Mutu have since been struck of the teachers’ roll, over charges of serious misconduct – which included an inappropriate relationship between John Mutu and a 15 year old pupil, and poor performance by the kura headed by Mrs Mutu.

So, having first protected the Minister by advising that no-one in an advisory capacity fitted the precise description cited in the RNZ story, the Education Ministry is now taking the fall as well. It has conceded that its vetting procedures were not rigorous enough and claimed that it did not know the full extent of the allegations against Mrs Mutu, or that she was still facing disciplinary action when it employed her. In appointing her, the Ministry said it had merely followed the recommendation of the national kura organization – whose president at the time, incredibly enough, was John Mutu. In future, the Ministry swears it will try to do better in future, and will require candidates to make declarations about pending charges, or court hearings.

What we are being asked to swallow is that when the original RNZ story first surfaced, no-one in the Ministry thought… hang on a minute, that description fits Deborah Mutu almost to a T, and hmm, it looks as if we took her on board on the recommendation of a body headed by her husband over whose head something of a cloud is still looming. We are being asked to believe that the Ministry had no institutional memory of the Mutu case – of his inappropriate behaviour, and of her kura’s performance shortcomings – either when appointing her, or when, in effect, defending her this year. That would require a series of memory lapses too sweeping to be even faintly credible.

It is far more likely that the Ministry – and the Minister – knew they’d been caught out, yet tried to concoct a plausibly deniable defence strategy. One that attacked the semantics of the RNZ story rather than address its substance. Ultimately a loophole was found that would allow the entire story to be rubbished and with luck (and the usual short attention span of the media news cycle) buried for good. It is only because of subsequent action by the teachers’ professional organization that this apparent collusion has been exposed to further examination.

Unfortunately, nothing useful will result. The Ministry has now taken the fall for their former Minister. It promises to do better. Well… until next time, and the next Ministry gets caught out. Anyone who has any experience with Official Information Act requests will recognise the process involved here. The system is adept at parsing OIA requests to find loose wording and/or loopholes that will allow information to be denied, especially if it might have a potentially embarrassing outcome for the Minister. Anecdotally, I have been told about staff who are prized precisely for their talent in finding creative and ingenious ways, within the law, to frustrate OIA requests and withhold the information being sought.

In the Mutu case, Tolley owes RNZ an apology, as well as needing to make a formal apology to the House. Reportedly, pressure is building on her to do so, in Parliament.

Even if – as seems likely – Tolley tries to portray herself as the innocent victim of her Ministry, this isn’t credible. Even bad advice at the time would not subsequently absolve her of an obligation to step forward and offer a correction and apology as soon as the full details emerged. Instead, Tolley is being dragged kicking and screaming towards that course of action. And this is the person who has just been appointed as Minister of Police. How can the public – or Prime Minister John Key - have any confidence in Tolley, in that role?

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