Friday June 22, 2012
Heads roll in ACC blackmail saga
TALE OF TWO CITIES By CHARLES CHAN - Auckland
THREE months ago, the picture looked grim for Bronwyn Pullar (caricature) — under police investigation for allegedly blackmailing the Accident Compensation Corporation and indirectly causing the downfall of a Cabinet minister.
Today, cleared of any wrong-doing by the police, she is a hero to thousands of New Zealanders who feel they have been victimised by the “culture of disentitlement” in ACC.
Modelled after a German system introduced by Bismarck, ACC was set up in 1900 as a no-fault insurance scheme whereby people in NZ, including foreigners and visitors, are provided medical and financial assistance without going through the pain and hassle of costly civil suits.
Inevitably, the corporation has to deal with unscrupulous people trying to rip off the system with bogus claims, forcing its managers to be very stringent in processing and rejecting claims on various grounds.
A former National insider, Pullar has been embroiled in a long-running claim dispute with the corporation when she was inadvertently sent details of more than 6,000 claimants.
Sensationally, former ACC Minister Nick Smith was sucked in as collateral damage in March when he resigned from all of his ministerial portfolios of environment, climate change and local government following media revelations that he had written two letters on ministerial letterheads supporting Pullar’s ACC claims.
Pullar’s reputation took another hit when the media also speculated that Smith’s relations with her were anything but platonic.
Media reports of her friend Michelle Boag, a former National Party president, writing a support letter mentioning several big names including that of prime minister John Key made Pullar look like a self-serving person trying to strongarm ACC into submitting to her demand.
Pullar became the focus of a police investigation following complaints by ACC that she tried to blackmail the corporation.
This apparently took place at a meeting with two ACC managers arranged by ACC deputy chairman John McCliskie at the request of Boag, who was also present.
Pullar, it was alleged, had offered to return the data inadvertently sent to her by ACC, if her claim was met.
Somehow, the ACC interpreted this as a form of blackmail and filed a complaint with the police.
But Pullar had secretly taped their conversation which was recently played in TV3’s 60 Minutes current affairs programme — and it showed no such demand or threat was ever made.
In fact, the recording showed it was the managers who linked returning the data with approval of her claim.
An apology might have settled the matter but ACC chairman John Judge and chief executive Ralph Stewart unwisely tried to justify ACC’s conduct.
Finally, heads began to roll starting with the exit of Judge followed the next day by Stewart. Two other board members — deputy chair John McCliskie and another director Rob Campbell — have also been told their terms would not be extended.
Stewart, the former head of investment company AXA NZ, became chief executive of ACC only in September but lasted just nine months in the job.
In a further twist, it has been revealed that the corporation has spent NZ$269,325 (RM683, 102) with two PR firms, since October, to help handle the deepening crisis.
Shifting his guns to ACC Minister Judith Collins, Labour’s ACC spokesman, Andrew Little, said ACC now needed a minister who was focused on the needs of ACC claimants rather than on the Government’s “tawdry, nasty, filthy little strategy of trying to fleece people and get people to lose their entitlements.”
Collins conceded it was time for a culture change at ACC but her concerns were about treatment of claimants and their privacy.
She said she wanted to have a situation where ACC has a culture whereby its staff look at their claimants and they ask thow they would like themselves to be treated.
The Minister, however, questions the existence of a key issue Pullar has highlighted — that “people with long-term disabilities are being culled systematically and unfairly denied the long-term disability payments that are their due.”
Commenting on the irony of the whole sorry saga, Smith noted that three months ago people were saying she was a villain but she was now being portrayed as a hero.
“And either of those things are true. Bronwyn is a sad case of a very capable person who’s had an accident and actually well illustrates the dilemma for many New Zealanders involved in ACC as to what is the appropriate time of rehabilitation,” he said.
Pullar had a successful business career before becoming involved in National Party communications in 2001, working under Boag.
But after suffering life-changing head injuries in a 2002 bicycle accident, she will never be able to work again at the high level she did before the accident.
The political firestorm over the Pullar-ACC affair came when the government was already reeling from a humiliating backdown by Education Minister Hekia Parata in the face of public anger over proposed budgetary cuts that would lead to larger class size and loss of technology teachers.
According to a recent TV3 opinion poll, the National Party has lost a fair chunk of support and Key’s rating as preferred PM has dropped to 40%, his lowest rating since becoming leader in 2006.
Factor in the public’s approval of Key’s performance falling 4.5%, that adds up to a massive 20% drop from 75% to 55% in just seven months
As declines in leadership support are normally followed by further declines in party support, Key’s lower ratings could spell disaster as he is National’s main asset.
In previous elections, all the National Party had to do was to trundle out the telegenic Key as its trump card and that was enough to clinch victory.
Key is far from being a spent force, but if his impact continues to decline and his well finally runs dry, the party has a tough battle on its hands to stay in power.