Jobs for the boys and girls

There was some guffawing and derision back in March when former National Party leader Simon Bridges was appointed as chairman of Waka Kotahi, the New Zealand Transport Agency.

Those same sceptics were no doubt in full voice when former National foreign minister Murray McCully was made one of three independent reviewers to lead the ministerial inquiry into the Ministry of Education’s management of school property.

And the chorus of cynicism surely grew louder on Sunday when it was announced that former National deputy prime minister Paula Bennett was to be the new chairwoman of government drug-buying agency Pharmac.

Paula Bennett. PHOTO: NZ HERALD
Paula Bennett. PHOTO: NZ HERALD
But there should be absolutely no surprise that the recently-elected National-led government should be looking to its own to fill governance roles: it is what governments have done since time immemorial.

To give just a few examples, Kāinga Ora chairman Vui Mark Gosche, a former Labour Cabinet minister, recently stepped down from that role, and the outgoing Pharmac chairman Steve Maharey is another Labour minister from that political generation.

More locally, so is former Labour health minister Pete Hodgson recently stepped away from his post helping to steer the new hospital building project. And former Dunedin South MP Clare Curran was appointed to the board of the University of Otago.

None of these appointments should be dismissed as mere nepotism. There are good reasons why former politicians are in demand for governance roles. For a start, they are actually experienced in governance — and at the highest level what is more.

The pool of experienced and capable board members in our small country is not large, and overseeing a government department offers unparalleled experience of what the role requires.

Ex-MPs know how to deal with government, they know how the public service works, and in many cases — Mr Bridges, a former transport minister being a prime example — they not only have extensive sector knowledge but know most of the main players.

Appointing board members and agency heads is not purely a process driven by the government of the day.

Treasury is the government department responsible for managing board appointments for state-owned enterprises, Crown financial institutions and other Crown companies and statutory entities. It has a permanent team in place which scouts for potential candidates, carries out due diligence and handles the appointment process.

There are about 240 such roles which need to be filled by the government, and most have a time limit on tenure. That means about 40-50 positions fall vacant each year, and naturally the parties in power will want a board or a chair person in place who will implement their policies and priorities in those areas.

While Ms Bennett’s portfolio history does not include health, she was a member of the Epidemic Response select committee. As both a former deputy prime minister and associate finance minister Ms Bennett will be well aware of both the insatiable demands on Pharmac to provide new drugs and the limitations on the public purse to afford them.

That said, she will be happy to have learned yesterday that the government plans to offer Pharmac its largest ever budget, $6.294 billion (or $1.774b annually), fixed over the next four years — although there is the caveat that the coalition parties all campaigned on expanding access to cancer medications, drugs which do not come cheaply.

But Pharmac’s woes are not purely financial. The biggest challenge which awaits Ms Bennett is restoring confidence in the agency after chief executive Sarah Fitt’s conduct in managing information requests from journalist Rachel Smalley was described as unprofessional by Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes.

She subsequently apologised, but Associate Health Minister David Seymour has called for a change in Pharmac's culture in light of Fitt's conduct.

The appointment of Ms Bennett is the first and arguably most important step in fulfilling the responsible minister’s wishes. It would be anticipated that Ms Bennett will have high standards, and that she would have every expectation that they would be met.

Her role and that of other likewise appointees, irrespective of their political pasts, is to ensure that the agency, entity or board which they are a part of does the best possible job for taxpayers.

Do that and it matters little who their friends and former colleagues might be.