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Time to change NZTA review

NZTA now admits that it has failed in its role of regulator— but what about the organisation that was charged with monitoring it? asks Thomas Coughlan.

NZTA should have celebrated its tenth anniversary in style this year. Instead, it will limp into 2019 in the midst of a scandal that has claimed its chief executive and threatens to cast a shadow of the entire first decade of the agency’s operation.

NZTA came into being in August 2008, with the merger of Land Transport New Zealand and Transit New Zealand. 

The new agency had a big role, and a massive budget. It’s responsible for everything from the multi-million dollar ad campaigns about drunk-driving and speeding, to spending the billions of dollars earned from fuel taxes and road user charges.

But there’s another function that often goes under the radar: regulator. 

Transport is a dangerous business and the Government, rightly, wants to ensure that the cars, drivers, and businesses that use our roads do so safely.

NZTA certifies companies and organisations to issue warrants and licenses to the cars, people and firms that use our roads. Everything from teenage learner drivers to massive transport companies must hold some form of license to use the roads. 

As road-users, we trust this process is robust. We trust the companies issuing our WoFs and licensing  our fellow drivers are well-managed. Companies who show themselves unable to safely issue certifications should be swiftly stripped of their right to do so.

And yet for many years it seems NZTA took a lackadaisical approach to this role. Officially, the organisation’s tactic was to “educate” rather than “enforce” its regulations. In other words, if organisations flouted the rules they were simply educated by the agency about what the rules were, and why they should be followed.

But education is for schools, not for our roads — certainly not for matters of life and death. And this has become an issue of life and death. 

William Ball of Dargaville died in January after his seatbelt failed just days after his vehicle was given a fresh WoF by Dargaville Diesel Specialists. 

NZTA had been made aware of concerns about DDS in 2011, including concerns about his testing of seatbelts, but did not take action to strip DDS of its right to issue WoFs until later this year. 

It’s difficult to see why they did not act sooner.

Rodney Wilson, who runs DDS, appeared to regard NZTA’s WoF system with contempt. He told Newshub that certifiers “might as well not be doing them [warrants] because everyone is doing them dodgy”.

Wilson clearly knew the rules around WoF checks, he appears to have elected not to follow them and very little “education” can change that.

Ball’s death triggered a review of NZTA, which will determine what went wrong and what must be done to fix the current crisis.  

Who watches the watchers?

The problem illustrates a perennial problem for governments: summed up by the famous Latin phrase quis custodiet ipsos custodes (who watches the watchers). 

It’s not a slogan easily reducible to a hashtag, I’ll admit, but it’s an important principle. When one organisation is set up to monitor another, it’s imperative that it does its job well. NZTA now admits that it has failed in its role of watcher — but the buck shouldn’t stop there.

NZTA has its own watcher, the Ministry of Transport. The Ministry has what is known as a “monitoring” function over the NZTA, meaning it watches the performance of the agency and has the ability to pull it into line if need be. 

It hasn’t escaped the attention of many observers that if NZTA hasn’t been doing its job as regulator, then the Transport Ministry is also at fault for neglecting its own monitoring role. 

And that’s a problem. The Transport Ministry is the organisation in charge of the review into NZTA, which will determine just what went wrong. But the review could very likely find that it was not just NZTA at fault, but also the Ministry that supervises it.

In the weeks since the review was announced in November, rumblings have been heard. The main question is how a ministry can effectively be allowed to examine its own faults. Compared to other reviews undertaken by this and other governments, the Ministry of Transport and NZTA could get off lightly. 

Those concerns appear to have reached the ear of the Minister.

Twyford defended the choice of the Transport Ministry as the agency conducting the review into NZTA, saying there was no conflict of interest.

But he said that that the question of whether the Ministry had neglected its role was fair, and it’s one that he wants an answer to when the review comes back in March.

While a review into NZTA should be applauded, if there is any suspicion that a ministry might be at fault, the review itself should be taken out of that ministry’s hands. 

The answer to who watches the watchers must never be the watchers themselves.

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