Speaker by Various Artists

21

Judith Collins and the hand-grenade handover

by John Palethorpe

The strange sense that we’ve been here before is well justified, given Judith Collins’ reappointment to the role where she gained her ‘Crusher’ moniker (despite never actually crushing a car).

Her re-appointment and Sam Lotu-Iiga’s demotion is being framed to portray her as the strong-willed, no-nonsense person who can clean up the Corrections and Serco mess. This feeds into the public persona, the Collins ‘brand’, of half pantomime villain, half steely eyed Thatcher. It’s an easy narrative, the tough, no-nonsense and slightly morally dubious politician brought in from the cold to fix a problem created by a generally less hard-edged, more conciliatory politician in Lotu-Iiga.

Except that’s bollocks, isn’t it? Sam Lotu-iiga was thrown a grenade by his predecessor, Anne Tolley, but the pin on that grenade was pulled by The Honourable Judith Collins MP back in 2009. It was Collins who put the Mt Eden contract out to tender and of the three bids for it, chose Serco. it was Collins who exuberantly praised the UK company saying “Serco have a strong track record in managing prisons. I’m confident the company will bring the high standards of professionalism, safety, rehabilitation and security expected…”

And, given the direction the as-yet unpublished report appears to be leading, it was Collins and her successor, Anne Tolley, who didn’t question the self-reported statistics that emerged from Mt Eden Corrections Facility. Indeed, Tolley has some questions to answer about the deal that brought Serco into the Wiri prison in South Auckland. Because while Collins’ deal was struck before the worst failures of Serco were evident in their overseas contracts, Anne Tolley must have been wilfully blind to ignore the utter mess of their contractor in 2012.

But back to Serco. At No To Serco we expected there to be a delay in the reporting about the Fight Clubs, and there was one. Stage One of the Serco report was due at the end of October, and Serco have filed an injunction claiming they didn’t have time to prepare for the investigation that had been going on for three months and was vital to the continuation of their contract. Stage Two concerned all subsequent expanding revelations from inmates, former inmates, staff and the families of all. It was due at the end of November. So far, nothing.

The shift in Minister is a tactic employed as a way to shuck off the impact of, what is probably going to be, a very damaging report into the Government’s flagship privatisation programme. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, by starting with prisoners (who nobody cares about) it should have been possible to claim success and move on with other privatisations. That is happening, but the opposition to it is now much more coherent and with a good measure of public opinion onside.

Minister Collins will deflect questions about Serco in the same way Chris Finlayson did about the GCSB, claiming “I wasn’t the Minister”. That may be temporarily effective, but given Collins’ role in the introduction of Serco to New Zealand, it should not be too difficult for MPs, like Kelvin Davis and David Clendon who have worked so hard so far, to find cracks in her defence.

It all depends on the release of the reports. At No To Serco, in partnership with ActionStation, we have been quietly maintaining contact with the thousands of people who have made it clear they want Serco out of Aotearoa. Regardless of who is the Minister for Corrections, these reports will be released. What we are hearing right now is that there will be sufficient grounds for a termination of the Mt Eden contract.

That’s a potential win, and an important one too. Whether or not it pushes Collins or Lotu-Iiga further into trouble is relevant politically, but it’s not the whole aim of our campaign. So if Serco lose Mt Eden, then we’ll be focusing intently on Wiri and any potential bids for public services. Their proposed bid for management of Wellington’s trains brought thousands of email responses to Parliament. The public just don’t trust them any more. And that matters.

Because Key can change the Minister, bringing back the architects of disaster in Collins or Tolley, but he can’t change the absolute disaster of Serco’s mismanagement of our prisons, or our determination to see them exit New Zealand with a firm boot to their rear.

John Palethorpe is an organiser with the group No To Serco in Aotearoa.

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