Politics

Twyford under pressure as NZTA chief resigns

Phil Twyford is under pressure following the resignation of the head of the NZTA, and an employment dispute involving the KiwiBuild chief executive, reports Thomas Coughlan.

Fergus Gammie has stepped down as head of Transport Agency NZTA, a resignation that puts increasing pressure on Transport Minister Phil Twyford who spent the weekend answering questions about another executive he oversees, KiwiBuild chief executive Stephen Barclay. 

Gammie’s role at NZTA had become increasingly untenable after media coverage of the consequences of the agency's poor management of licence and WoF issuers and its approach of “education” rather than “enforcement” when it came to its regulatory function.

Several WoF issuers have been suspended, and the regulatory failures of the NZTA have been connected with the death of one motorist after a WoF issuer failed to detect a frayed seatbelt. 

The fallout from the scandal led to Twyford commissioning a review of NZTA’s regulatory function by the Ministry of Transport, its monitoring agency.

Gammie joined NZTA in 2016 as chief executive. He was the former chief operating officer of Auckland Transport and held senior roles at Transport for New South Wales in Australia. 

NZTA’s now-discredited “education” approach did not begin with Gammie, but it lasted long after he joined the agency. 

In October, Twyford announced with great fanfare that the agency would be reviewing 850 “open compliance files” that related to organisations that could potentially be conducting their businesses unsafely.

Law firm Meredith Connell was brought in to investigate the files.

Twyford called an end to the education approach and signalled a renewed focus on enforcement. Gammie appeared beside the minister at the announcement, alongside Michael Stiassny who had recently been appointed to head NZTA’s board. 

Gammie admitted that the agency’s approach had not been “sufficiently robust to categorically ensure the highest levels of regulatory compliance,” but did not resign.

Twyford said then it was too early to determine whether staff should lose their jobs.

In a statement today, Gammie said, “the Transport Agency has long been focused and reliant on education and self-regulation rather than focusing attention and resources on ensuring regulatory compliance and enforcement”.

“In resigning, I note that the approach and focus of the Transport Agency has necessarily changed. 

“I ask that full support be given to the Board, management team, and Meredith Connell as they work towards resolving the outstanding issues and towards developing a stronger regulatory enforcement framework to ensure the public has confidence in the Transport Agency’s processes,” he said. 

Gammie said he hoped his resignation would mean the review could be conducted without further “distraction”.

KiwiBuild employment dispute

The announcement was made during the “witching hour” for journalists, coming just minutes after the Prime Minister concluded her weekly press conference where she answered a series of bruising questions on the apparent disappearance of Stephen Barclay, the chief executive of KiwiBuild, another organisation overseen by Twyford. 

The New Zealand Herald initially reported Barclay had resigned from KiwiBuild, after he had been absent from the post since early November. But on Sunday the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) clarified that Barclay had not quit, although it confirmed he was not currently working. 

The Herald reported on Monday that Barclay was involved in an employment dispute over KiwiBuild’s move from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment to Twyford’s new ministry, HUD. 

The Government had been curiously silent on both situations. Twyford awkwardly batted away questions on Q&A on Sunday and Ardern refused to give much detail in her Monday press conference, saying the matter was “operational”.

Ardern even went so far as to apologise for the lack of detail she could provide, although her insistence that the issue was operational rather than a dispute over policy appeared to confirm reports that Barclay's absence was an employment dispute. 

“Unfortunately I’m going to be very boring on this, and there’s not much more I can say on it,” she said.

"What I can say, because I have seen some of the speculation, is that the chief advisor Andrew Crisp advises me that this is nothing to do with the KiwiBuild policy or the implementation of the KiwiBuild programme."

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