Preferential treatment at ACC

Nick Smith. Photo by the National Party
Nick Smith. Photo by the National Party
If it surprises even some MPs that the Accident Compensation Corporation runs a claims process for "important" people, then it is just as well an inquiry by the Auditor-general into how ACC manages conflicts of interest has been announced.

Opposition spokesman on ACC matters Andrew Little had not been aware of special VIP provisions when he spoke on National Radio about it following revelations in the Otago Daily Times last week. That this has come to light as the corporation struggles to emerge from a storm of controversy only adds to the questions surrounding it - particularly as some of that contention relates to suggestions of preferential treatment.

Arguably this is quite a separate "structural" matter, but some rehearsal of the current imbroglio is necessary - if only to distinguish what is at stake in each.

Briefly, then, former ACC minister Nick Smith was forced to resign last month when it emerged he had signed letters on ministerial letterhead that could be construed as intervening on behalf of a friend who had a long-standing claim with the corporation. That friend was Bronwyn Pullar who, anonymous at the time, leaked a list of 6700 ACC claimants to the Dominion Post newspaper on March 13, saying this had been sent to her in error and was a serious breach of confidentiality.

ACC inquired into the leaking and alleged to new ACC minister Judith Collins that the claimant and a support person had sought two years' payments for the return of the confidential list.

On March 18, the Herald on Sunday published details from a letter sent by former National Party president Michelle Boag to Ms Collins. The leaked letter revealed the claimant as Ms Pullar and Ms Boag as her support person. This leak is now the subject of an inquiry by the privacy commissioner. On March 25, the same newspaper divulged details of Ms Pullar's private insurance claim, originally put at $14 million.

Four days later, TV One's Close Up unearthed correspondence to Ms Boag relating to the private claim and referring to Ms Pullar's 28-strong group of supporters, mostly prominent National Party figures including John Key, Jenny Shipley and Wayne Mapp.

Quite apart from the questions relating to who leaked what to whom and why - some commentators are suggesting this is all about future leadership positions in the National Party - there are some pressing issues at stake here.

If the confidentiality breach involving the dispersal of the 6700 claimants to Ms Pullar was simply a careless accident by an ACC staff officer, then systems evidently need to be tightened at the corporation.

If it came to Ms Pullar by other means, then that is more worrying. It suggests malign influences at work either within ACC or among those who have access to its files; it could also mean that ACC's IT security net has been compromised.

Of most concern, however, are the apparent attempts, by Dr Smith, and arguably by Ms Boag, on Ms Pullar's behalf, to use their positions and connections to influence the actions of a state corporation. Even the appearance of having supported preferential treatment for Ms Pullar brings both the corporation and the Government into disrepute.

The ODT's revelations that ACC has a VIP claims policy is a separate issue. Ostensibly, while she was a well-connected National Party activist, Ms Pullar did not qualify for priority treatment. As set out in the corporation's 2007 "delegation manual", there exists a special "claims handling authority" for the Governor-General, members of Parliament, members of the judiciary, ACC board members and members of their respective immediate families.

But the furore around ACC at large should not distract from questions on this policy. Why should certain people have special privileges - mainly relating to privacy and security - pertaining to their claims?

Should not the security of the system be sufficient to protect the privacy of everyone, regardless of status or station in life?

Mr Little did muse on the potential for conflicts of interest for MPs and judges dealing with ACC-related matters. There may be some mileage in this but, given the context of the times, a rather more detailed explanation of the policy than ACC has given to date would be helpful. Hopefully, the Auditor-general's inquiry will shed light on such matters.



Add a Comment