Government ministers at the National Party annual conference in Auckland this weekend circled the wagons to support an obviously incompetent cabinet minister – Corrections Minister Sam Lotu-Iiga.
Lotu-Iiga has been out of touch with the issues around SERCO’s profit-first, welfare-last approach to running Auckland’s Mt Eden Prison on behalf of SERCO shareholders.
The litany of allegations, some complete with video evidence, about organised fights, drug abuse, extortion, rape, intimidation and violence within the prison and extending out into the community has been staggering.
It turns out Lotu-Iiga knew about the most serious allegations of extreme violence for several months and, in what appears to be collusion with SERCO, kept this under wraps until it was exposed elsewhere.
On 1 April this year in response to a parliamentary question Lotu-Iiga praised SERCO –
In the last prison performance table, might I just add, Serco’s Mt Eden Corrections Facility was the most exceptional prison based on core security, internal procedures, and its rehabilitation score. So it is clear that despite the fact that we have that private prison, it is one of the highest-performing prisons in New Zealand.
Lotu-Iiga gave this answer despite already knowing of the serious allegations about SERCO-run Mt Eden. These prison “scores’ Lotu-Iiga refers to are public relations drivel similar to the A credit rating the biggest agencies gave Lehman Brothers till the day the bank went belly-up.
But government ministers are behind Lotu-Iiga. Deputy Prime Minister Bill English told the media he thought Lotu-Iiga had handled a tough week very well and “he has the total support of the cabinet and the caucus” while Social Development Minister Anne Tolley told the conference “Isn’t Sam doing a fantastic job this week?” John Key joined in the cheerleading for good measure.
The reason National backs an incompetent minister is the same reason the party continues to back incompetent Education Minister Hekia Parata – that these ministers represent constituent groups National is doing its best to win over – Pacific Island and Maori voters. Sacking either minister would be a bad look for National within those voter groups.
So Key was happy to trash the likes of Adam Gilmore, Richard Worth, Maurice Williamson and even demote Judith Collins because that won’t change how National’s core voter base sees the party. However Lotu-Iiga and Parata represent voters National would not naturally hold onto so preserving their butts is a priority.
It’s the National Party’s soft prejudice of low expectations for its Maori and Pasifika ministers.
Education Minister Hekia Parata this week not only refused to close a charter school, Te Pumanawa o te Wairua, plagued with financial, management, educational and drug abuse problems since it started but gave it an extra $129,000 this year to pay for the cost of “implementing its remedial plan”.
Parata has closed dozens of much larger, high-performing public schools in her tenure as minister but rewards a small boil on the backside of our education system with additional funding and more last chances than a proverbial nine-lives cat.
Meanwhile it’s well worth listening to journalist Anthony Loewenstein’s interview on Radio New Zealand on the weekend where he points to SERCO encouraging under-reporting of incidents in its prisons because such reports lower their “scores” and can result in big fines for the company under its contracts. He also points out the company routinely understaffs its prisons as a key way to make bigger profits, irrespective of the welfare of prisoners.
Such practices are standard. The private sector frequently claims it is “more efficient” that the public sector but it’s a claim which falls apart on scrutiny. More efficiency for the private sector just means they pay their workers less and employ less of them.