Years ago, I remember someone in the Heath Ministry telling me off the record that regulatory oversight in this country largely consisted in ‘waiting for something to turn green or fall off somebody’ before the authorities would swing into action. Prevention is often deemed as being too costly, or too intrusive on business-as-usual. The ongoing failures in monitoring the fishing industry’s snapper catch – ie onboard cameras that fail, monitoring that has been delegated by the authorities to a firm owned by the fishing industry – are the all too typical outcome.
Only some of the contributing factors are structural. Yes, in a country as small as New Zealand, it can be difficult to devise truly independent systems of oversight and review. Everyone tends to know everyone, or has worked for them in some capacity or – all too often – they will be being paid by the same ministry or industry they are being expected to evaluate. Officials readily see the wisdom of learning the language of discretion. There is an art form in drawing up terms of reference for an inquiry so that the powerful will be safely insulated from the potential for political fallout.
As a “she’ll be right” nation, we’re not hard-wired to see the necessity for regulatory oversight, either. After all, our Parliament runs on a single chamber with no written Constitution, a simple majority of MPs can pass sweeping laws, and our courts don’t need to be reminded of the supremacy of Parliament. In addition, a climate of cost-cutting within government can readily work against full and fearless investigations of the state’s failings, especially if the victims are eligible for compensation.
Last week’s conflict between Social Development Minister Anne Tolley and District Court judge Carolyn Henwood illustrated quite a few of the flaws in the system. Read the rest of this entry »