A series of 'accidents'?

The resignation yesterday of Ralph Stewart as chief executive of the Accident Compensation Corporation, hard on the heels of the departure of chairman John Judge and two other directors, explodes any notion of an orderly process of incremental change at the organisation. Rather it has, self-evidently, become one of radical crisis management. While the changes at the top will be painted by the Government as firm and decisive action to reset ACC's course, there appears to be a number of underlying factors suggesting there is more to the present mess than mere corrective action.

Ostensibly, that action is necessary to address a culture in which adherence to strict client confidentiality has become lackadaisical at best, and careless at worst. This much has become apparent through the poisonous Bronwyn Pullar affair which, prior to this week, had already claimed the scalp of former ACC minister Nick Smith. Dr Smith had, in what might kindly be termed a lapse of judgment, signed a letter on ministerial letterhead on Ms Pullar's behalf. It was an action that rebounded on him - with drastic consequences.

It could be said the failure of Dr Smith's successor, Judith Collins, to endorse Mr Judge and two of his senior directors, and the resignation of Mr Stewart following a meeting at the Beehive with Mrs Collins on Tuesday, adds four more notches to Ms Pullar's belt.

Pressure on them all had been ratcheted up following the revelations of the weekend's TV3 60 Minutes programme. This appeared to present evidence contradicting ACC's allegations that Ms Pullar had in some manner, and aided by former National Party president Michelle Boag, attempted to cut a deal on her benefit in return for their retrieval of the infamous privacy-breaching file containing the names of thousands of claimants. This is something she has strenuously denied.

Convincing though the programme might have been, it nonetheless raises other questions about ACC, in particular its management and its governance. For example, should deputy chairman John McCliskie have facilitated, as he is alleged to have done, the meeting between Ms Pullar and senior ACC management?

How appropriate - and how intimidating for that management - must it have been to have the intricately connected Mrs Boag riding shotgun for Ms Pullar at that same meeting?

If those senior members had imagined its business would remain the strict preserve of those in the room, then they could not have been more wrong - witness Ms Pullar's 60 Minutes appearance, and before that, Mrs Boag's revealing, and leaked, email concerning the meeting, to Mrs Collins. They, of course, had already interpreted its thrust as in some manner "threatening" and made allegations of extortion to the police in March, which this week dismissed them.

For her part, the ACC Minister is sticking to the line that realignments on the board and, by implication, at top management level, will allow a culture change. "I've no problem with them getting people back to work, no problem with that at all - actually that's what they need to do ... but I expect people to be treated with professionalism, and a lack of professionalism is something I find very concerning," she said on announcing the directorships would not be renewed.

That is certainly appropriate, as far as it goes, and a status quo most people might expect as a bare minimum. The bigger issue, which various opposition voices are doing their best to exploit right now, is to what extent has ACC under this Government and its hand-picked board subverted the very purpose and nature of the organisation. The potential for abuse of a system of no-fault accident compensation is significant. The level to which this was happening, and the extent to which the corporation was tracking towards a fiscal black hole, has been obscured by partisan politicking.

Regardless, efficient, professional management and firm but arm's length governance of such a weighty arm of the social contract is a starting point for renewed public confidence. Mrs Collins' actions at least have the virtue of signalling a fresh start - and that clearly is no accident. The Government can ill-afford another festering debacle such as the one on class-sizes.


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