Corrections chief's PR campaign poisons own chalice

The public relations campaign mounted by Barry Matthews to hold on to his job as the head of the Corrections Department is added reason why he should lose it.

His going public yesterday has made his position even more untenable - if that is possible - than it already was following Tuesday's damning report from the Auditor-general which raised concerns public safety was at risk because of Corrections' failure to properly monitor offenders on parole.

Coming on top of a catalogue of mistakes and blunders by the department, the report alone was enough to raise serious questions about Mr Matthews remaining as chief executive.

That was the view taken earlier in the week by Corrections Minister Judith Collins, who was ready and waiting to nobble him by effectively declaring she had lost confidence in her departmental chief executive.

Responding yesterday, Mr Matthews was careful not to sound confrontational, instead arguing he had made "significant improvements" to his problem-plagued department's operations and questioning why he should lose his job.

If Mr Matthews was serious about reconciliation with Ms Collins, however, he would have confined his public remarks to a brief press statement and then gone to ground while his employer, the State Services Commission, acted as a mediator between him and his minister.

Going public in what was an elaborate media strategy designed to obtain maximum coverage - a string of interviews was arranged with major news organisations - was provocative in itself.

Surprisingly, however, Ms Collins seemed to be turning the other cheek.

Maybe Mr Matthews was told if he was conciliatory, Ms Collins would back off. Maybe the Government is worried about this getting too messy and him getting a big payout if he is sacked.

Regardless, Mr Matthews seemed to be digging in for the long haul, confident that the commission will not determine his performance as chief executive warrants removal from his post.

He has one advantage. The last Government was warned by the commission that if it wanted to avoid costly exit packages for non-performing chief executives, then it had to play things by the book in terms of employment law.

Any sizeable cash settlement would be extremely embarrassing for the new Government, which is constantly preaching restraint.

Ms Collins certainly pushed things to the limit at her press conference on Tuesday, but she was extremely careful not to overstep the mark. She does not need to do so. She holds the ace card.

If she wants Mr Matthews gone, she can dig in her heels in and tell the commission that her working relationship with him has broken down completely and cannot be repaired. The commission will have no choice but to remove him.

Moreover, given Corrections' record, it is unlikely Mr Matthews will attain martyr status, especially after yesterday's grandstanding.

For someone earning around $1000 a day, he could have saved a lot of time by holding a single press conference which all media could have attended. However, a press conference would have looked confrontational. It would have been interpreted as an act of aggression in what is now a stand-off between Mr Matthews and Ms Collins.

Holding a string of separate interviews avoided giving such impression. But the net result is the same. No matter how he dresses things up, Mr Matthews' behaviour is undermining the standing of his minister.

That is unacceptable and inexcusable regardless of whether she is right or wrong on wanting him gone. What was untenable is now terminal.

Likewise, in going public in such blatant fashion, Mr Matthews has undermined the behind-the-scenes efforts of State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie to broker peace between him and Ms Collins.

Mr Rennie would not discuss the matter in detail when he appeared before a routine select committee review of his organisation on Wednesday.

But he did say it was not unusual for ministers and chief executives not to see eye- to-eye to varying degrees. He also implied he thought the working relationship between Ms Collins and Mr Matthews could be restored to satisfactory levels.

That seemed to be a remarkably optimistic view. Ms Collins now has too much political collateral invested in Mr Matthews being sacked to pull back and accept that he stays in his job. The longer he clings on, the more embarrassing it becomes for her.

Without naming Mr Matthews, she made it absolutely clear following the tabling of the Auditor-general's report that she wanted his head to roll.

She has written to the State Services Commission giving it 10 working days to find out who was accountable for the failure by Corrections to comply with its own procedures for monitoring prisoners on parole - procedures which were revised and tightened in the wake of Graeme Burton's lethal rampage.

Once those accountable are singled out, she wants the commission to declare what steps are necessary to restore public confidence in Corrections.

No-one present at Ms Collins' press conference on Tuesday was under any illusion that she was talking about someone other than Mr Matthews.

She pointedly and repeatedly refused to express confidence in him. She was confident Mr Matthews knew how seriously she regarded the findings of the Auditor-general's report, effectively inviting him to resign.

Her performance was a tour de force. Rarely, if ever, has a senior public servant been eviscerated in quite the fashion Mr Matthews was on Tuesday - and without a right of reply. She had banned him from commenting on the report.

Ms Collins pushed the boundaries about as far as she could, stopping short of demanding his resignation - something which would have opened her to allegations of direct political interference in the State Service Commission's statutory responsibility for hiring and firing chief executives.

Her next move hinges on the commission's reply to her letter. If Mr Rennie deems Matthews' performance as chief executive does not warrant his removal, she really has little political choice but to tell Mr Rennie she can no longer work with Mr Matthews.

Regardless, she will probably seek Cabinet approval before delivering any ultimatum to the commission. She does not wish to be seen to be flying solo.

She also wants to avoid the impression all this bother is simply a personality clash, when it is really a necessary first step in transforming Corrections' mindset of failure into what she extravagantly calls a "culture of excellence".

That is the bottom line. Mr Matthews has been seen as an obstacle by successive Corrections ministers to that happening.

If he doesn't go, Ms Collins will not only be seen as weak and a blowhard; she will be seen as losing a crucial battle and losing control of her portfolio. That is an image no minister can allow to take hold.

- John Armstrong is political correspondent for The New Zealand Herald.

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