Paula Bennett's reading comprehension failure

Back when I was at school, we used to have to do tests where we'd read a section of writing and then answer questions about it. Perhaps Paula Bennett ought to be given a few of these to sharpen up on, because she seems to have trouble with her comprehension skills.

The Government (and State Services Commission, which really appears to be joined at the hip with Ministers on this matter) seems to have decided on its strategy to deal with the damning Ombudsman's Report into Paula Rebstock's Report on MFAT leaks. I posted on that Ombudsman's Report here last week, if you need a primer.

Essentially, this strategy has two parts to it. The first is to continue to claim that the MFAT public servants were in the wrong in opposing the proposed changes within MFAT, so they pretty much got what they deserved. Murray McCully ran that line in his comments last week.

The second part is to try and minimise the Ombudsman's findings, suggesting that they amount to little more than nit-picking over process and suggestions for how to do things a bit better next time round. That was the tenor of the State Services Commission's initial response, echoed yesterday by its Minister Paula Bennett:

I think though that if you read [the Ombudsman's Report] carefully, what it says is that there were certainly some procedural matters that we should be learning from and that shouldn't have happened in that way. 

But I actually think there's been a misinterpretation of the report itself, in that it's saying it made allegations against people that shouldn't have been made, and that's certainly not the way I read it.

So is Ms Bennett right, in that the Ombudsman's criticisms purely relate to "procedural matters", and are not "saying [the Rebstock Report] made allegations against people that shouldn't have been made"? I offer up to you but one example, in order to  allow you to decide just who is "misinterpreting" the Ombudsman's words.

Here's what the original Rebstock Report said about what she thought motivated a senior MFAT official, Mr Leask, when he expressed his unhappiness about the proposed MFAT changes to the offices of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Trade and DPMC (at para. 312):

[Mr Leask] submitted that [he was] not seeking to provide [his] personal views to Ministers but rather [was] providing [his] professional views on the impact [he] considered the changes would have on MFAT and on [his] particular post/division. Furthermore, [he] contended that [he] could not have been acting to protect [his] own personal interests because [he] had already decided to leave MFAT and therefore the change proposals were not going to directly affect [him]. The investigation does not accept this. The investigation considers that [this] long-serving manager saw the change proposals as a personal attack on [his] legacy in the department and therefore put [his] personal interest in protecting that legacy before [his] professional obligations as a leader of change and supporting the Secretary to provide robust and unbiased advice to the Government.

In public service circles, that's a really serious allegation to make against an individual. It's essentially saying that Mr Leask put his ego ahead of his professional obligations and misused his access to ministerial level decision making in an effort to benefit himself over his department. You don't get to work in government service management again with that sort of stain on your record.

What, then, does the Ombudsman's Report make of this express finding of fact in the original Rebstock report? Well, at para. 197 it states:

In sum, I consider that the finding that Mr Leask was motivated to protect his personal legacy did not have sufficient evidential foundation. Moreover, it was at  odds with the wealth of other direct evidence to suggest that Mr Leask was motivated by a concern about the future of MFAT and New Zealand’s national interest.

So, I invite you to consider - is this just the Ombudsman saying that there are "some procedural matters that we should be learning from", or is he "saying [the Rebstock Report] made allegations against people that shouldn't have been made"? Which "interpretation" of the Ombudsman's report is the better one to take?

Furthermore, you may be thinking that maybe this is simply a she thinks/he thinks situation - Ms Rebstock viewed matters one way, Mr Paterson another. Well, then, let's consider the basis for each individual's views. For as the Ombudsman's Report lays out, the only evidence provided in Ms Rebstock's original report for the "legacy protection" motive is a single interview with another MFAT official who didn't even mention Mr Leask, but simply speculated that "some of those people" who opposed change in MFAT felt that way.

Then, from Mr Paterson's own Ombudsman's inquiry into Ms Rebstock's inquiry, the following two beautiful paragraphs of deadpan humour emerged:

192. Ms Rebstock subsequently said at interview that the finding that the actions Mr Leask took were motivated by his personal interest, came across 'strongly¹ in her interviews with him. I have since carefully reviewed the transcripts of the interviews to find the source of that evidence. However, I have been unable to locate any material in the interview transcripts that supports such an interpretation of Mr Leask¹s motivations.

193. [The State Services Commission] made the general comment that ‘body language and other cues¹ are ‘highly relevant¹ in assessing the evidence of interviewees. However, the interview with Mr Leask was via telephone, so it is unlikely that his body language or non-verbal cues could have contributed to any assessment of his responses.

So if Ms Bennett really wants to run a line something like "Ms Rebstock thought one thing, Mr Paterson another, but who knows where the truth lies?", then that's her lookout. But we should recognise what happened here. The Rebstock Report cast serious aspersions on Mr Leask's character and professional competency based on the reckons of an unnamed MFAT official as to what "some people" were thinking, the content of interviews which contain no words to support the conclusion, and body language and other cues discerned over the telephone.

That's simply not a "procedural matter that we should be learning from". It simply isn't. And the Minister should not be allowed to get away with saying that is all it is.