Simeon Brown has asked the Ombudsman to investigate after a text message relating to Kiri Allan was withheld.
A mystery text message – kept secret by senior public servants – is at the centre of a controversy swirling around Cabinet Minister Kiritapu Allan, and is now the subject of a complaint to Parliament’s information watchdog.
Stuff revealed on Wednesday that a Department of Conservation employee, seconded to work with Allan chose to leave early last year because of concerns about “working relationships.” That saw DOC chief executive Penny Nelson take concerns to the Department of Internal Affairs, which manages Ministerial Services.
Allan, who returned to Parliament on Thursday after taking mental health leave, has said she “never had any formal allegations made against me in any way, shape, or form”.
At the same time as Stuff was investigating, the National Party was also asking questions. MP Simeon Brown, the party’s public services spokesperson, had lodged an Official Information Act request with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
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He submitted the detailed list of questions after he heard reports of Allan, who is regional economic minister, withdrawing abruptly from an event.
A separate source has also spoken to Stuff about the circumstances of that event, in March, held by the regional economic development and investment unit, Kānoa.
Brown asked for documents and correspondence written by senior MBIE staff, that references Allan’s “behaviour or conduct”. He also asked for details of any incidents or concerns.
One text message fell within the scope of his request. But MBIE boss Carolyn Tremain said she was withholding that, under a clause that exists to allow the “free and frank” exchange of opinions within government.
Stuff has been told by two sources that that message came from deputy chief executive Robert Pigou. In a written statement Pigou said the text “does not express concerns about staff working in the office and therefore no follow-up action was needed.”
He also said there is no correspondence, formal or informal, between him and the current private secretary for regional development in Allan’s office, since February, that refers to Allan’s behaviour.
Pigou also said no formal complaints have been made by staff about Allan’s conduct and no staff were removed from the office because of concerns.
He added that he has good relationships with staff, and is confident they would share with him any concerns about safety and wellbeing.
Stuff sought further clarification from Pigou, and he replied: “In my role, I have informal discussions with all my staff, including our private secretaries that support our Ministers, and I consider these discussions to be withheld under section 9 (2) (g)(i) of the Official Information Act 1982, to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the expression of free and frank expression of opinions.
“I have no concerns with these discussions around culture and treatment of staff in Minister Allan’s office and if there were and these were shared with me, I would take the appropriate action to action this.”
Brown has asked the Office of the Ombudsman, which hears complaints relating to OIA requests, to investigate the withholding of the text message.
Allan said the event in question was in Taranaki.
She said that if she considered there was risk associated with a meeting: “I’ll pick up a phone call, I’ll make calls to my relevant colleagues to see what the best approach or advice and next steps [are] and I decided to not pursue that given the risk.”
She said the discussions were “very factual” and when asked she said there was no shouting involved.
Allan gave a defiant performance when confronted by reporters at Parliament this morning.
Both she, and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins have repeatedly used the phrase “formal allegations.”
Brown and Allan clashed at a select committee hearing on Thursday, where she accused National of a “fishing exercise.”
Earlier, she told reporters that she was not a tough boss. “I’m from the regions we do things a little bit differently, but I think I’m fair, I think I have clear expectations and when those aren’t met, I’m clear about those as well,” she said.