LET’S CONCEDE that Barry Matthews has a tough job. His department must look after the human wreckage that society has spurned: the lost, the vicious, the drunk and the addicted, the hopeless and the bent and twisted.
Absolutely. Corrections is as tough as it gets.
Let’s also concede that Corrections, for deep historical reasons, is not well placed to cope. The tough criminal culture has produced a tough culture among the guards. Attempts to change this culture are difficult and take time. One reason for the enthusiastic move to try private prisons all those years ago was the feeling that the state prison system was unreformable: a fresh start was needed.
And Labour’s killing off of this initiative is one of the most ideological stupid things they did. The state prison system does have a culture of corruption (the SST calls it “tough”, and this was a chance to help turn that around.
Does all this mean that Matthews should keep his job? No. The Auditor-General’s report is, in truth, a damning one and there can be no excuses for the trouble it uncovered. A year-long audit showed that despite the department’s spectacular failures in the case of murderers William Bell and Graeme Burton, Corrections continued to fail to do its job. This was not a case simply of not enough workers to carry out the tasks. It was just plain negligence and sloppiness. Dangerous prisoners walked free and no attempt was made to warn their victims. Others went out into the world and did not see a probation officer for weeks or months.
The public, in other words, was at risk because the department wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. Matthews, as the chief executive of the department, must be accountable for these failings. He has been in charge for four years. That is long enough to ensure that those who work in the organisation do the job they are paid to do. These were not isolated shortcomings. They were frequent or systemic.
Traditionally, we have demanded accountability either from the minister or the chief executive of a department; too often, both have declined to accept the blame. Judith Collins has the great good luck to be a new minister, and cannot fairly be blamed. The buck stops, therefore, with Matthews. No doubt he has done his best. No doubt he has worked hard to reform an intractable organisation that has had to bear impossible new loads. But in the end, the democratic system requires accountability. If Matthews will not resign, the State Services Commission must move or sack him.