‘No Surprises’ Surprises and Multidimensional Scandal Strip Tease

There's been allegations made of leaking, dirty rumours on Twitter and blurring lines between the bureaucratic and political – the election is just threeish weeks away!

The so-called ‘no surprises’ convention – not strictly the singular matter of Winston Peters' pension overpayments and certainty not dark and unsubstantiated rumours about a certain minister's past – was the political class's big talking point last week, and for good reason. As the Herald's Audrey Young put it, "No story with Winston Peters at the centre of it was ever going to be a one-day wonder".

In a weird and revealing turn of events, we found out that the Prime Minister's chief of staff, two ministers (Anne Tolley and Paula Bennett), two department heads and the Solicitor General knew about Winston Peters' pension overpayments, due to the ‘no surprises’ convention. Oh, and, according to the government, PM Bill English knew nothing (a familiar state of affairs).

Peter Hughes, the State Services Commissioner, explains the 'no surprises' mechanism as requiring "departments to inform ministers promptly of matters of significance within their portfolio responsibilities, particularly where these matters may be controversial or may become the subject of public debate." It was put in place as more and more government departments and entities were structurally distanced from the state and transformed into, well, companies.

If some unforced disaster happens in a ministry or department, like a civil servant loses a million dollars down the back of the couch, or it turns out that conference rooms on Lambton Quay are actually called orgy rooms, or a whole lot of disgruntled staff leave (because their manager smells weird), then, the idea goes, the cabinet member responsible will be notified so they aren't blindsided by enthusiastic opposition members during parliament question time or ambushed by a Stuff reporter set on writing a 'and you'll never guess what happened next' piece. 

And yet, for some reason, everyone (expect the Prime Minister, of course!) knew about Winston Peters' pension overpayments three days before Newshub was anonymously tipped off about the irregularities (in a sense, the ‘no surprises’ convention worked, for some).

It begs the question: what else are cabinet members told about, and did the National-led government leak the news that Peters had been receiving more money than he was technically eligible for on the superannuation programme before he paid the money back. (An aside: Peters gets more than $200,000 a year in public money.)

Peters certainly thinks the National Party is behind this – as they clearly had the information. Peters said: "There's no way I think the fair-minded people of this country are going to put up with this sort of carry-on when it's deceitful, it's duplicitous, it's all the worst elements of dirty politics." Three government investigations are now under way to try and find out how the leak happened – with Peters saying he'll launch his own detective work and also take the matter to the Privacy Commissioner.

One thing is known for sure: the no surprises convention was not originally designed to act as a conduit of politically expedient and damaging information between the bureaucratic and political spheres of our government. Political writer Felix Marwick‏ raised an excellent point last week, tweeting: "It's interesting all these ministers were told about Peters' super, yet Police Ministers, past & present, weren't told about the Barclay [inquiry]." Indeed, what other golden nuggets of dirt have made their way through the no surprises tube?

Let's return to the Deputy Prime Minister and State Services Minister. Paula Bennett maintains that she had nothing to do with the leak, saying she had not even discussed it with her own staff. In the past, however, she has been involved in some morally dubious leaking. She was criticised – but nothing came of it after a human rights inquiry – for releasing the private information of two beneficiaries who had voiced their opposition to changes in a Social Development training initiative.

Last week's episode shows a need to seriously re-evaluate the no surprises convention. It is easy to imagine that this is not the only politically volatile information that ministers have received over the years through this bureaucratic mechanism. It points to incompetence or an eagerness to please on the part of public service bosses or a hardened culture of expectations and unwritten obligations where ministers regularly receive political intelligence from their civil servant underlings.

This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2017.
Posted 11:06am Sunday 3rd September 2017 by George Elliott.