Hats off to the CAA whistleblower

The CAA, a place of dysfunction and distrust

A whistleblower working in the Civil Aviation Authority has told Newshub that dysfunction and distrust at the CAA is putting the public at risk.

The employee decided to speak to Newshub‘s investigations reporter Michael Morrah because, he says, the CAA has repeatedly failed in its regulatory role, and a “toxic” work environment is contributing to the problem.

Twyford: An offer of anonymity, but not job security, to the whistle-blower

Transport Minister Phil Twyford said he wants a senior ministry official to meet the whistleblower face-to-face. The whistleblower responded that he lacked confidence in the offer, but would be willing to discuss the issues over the telephone.

A Newshub Official Information Act request revealed that, in just over three years, 20 formal complaints have been made by CAA staff about bullying, sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour. They led to three staff members being sacked, while others received formal warnings.

Internal documents obtained by Newshub also suggest some staff want to complain about issues but won’t because they “don’t trust the process” and have concerns about “incompetent managers”.

CAA Director Graeme Harris responded by saying it has “very robust” processes to deal with poor performance and complaints.

The CAA informant has worked at the Authority for several years. He admitted he was taking a big risk going public – but decided to on behalf of his colleagues and in the interests of Kiwi travellers.

“This is a safety regulator. The CAA’s job is to protect the travelling public of New Zealand. How can you assure safety in an organisation that has this level of distrust and dysfunction?”

He says the issues largely concern the behaviour of managers, especially those in the helicopter and health and safety units.

“Much of the senior management is simply distrusted by the people who work for them. There’s a lot of internal strife, there’s a lot of bullying… there’s a lot of toxic atmosphere.”

Harris: Bizarrely, he said that tension among his staff can be constructive

But Harris disputed that, saying the agency has a “very good” culture.

However, when pressed on conflicts between staff, Harris acknowledged he’s “never happy with disagreements in the organisation” but felt that sometimes this led to a “useful tension” that can be constructive.

The informant’s comments are supported by a leadership Q and A from February 2 this year, obtained by Newshub. In it, staff say:

“When are incompetent managers going to be held to the same level of scrutiny as staff?”

“A staff member makes one mistake and gets sacked. Managers screw up whole units for months or years and nothing happens.”

On the issue of bullying and harassment, one staff member said: “Why were there so many bullying / staff issues in 2018?”

Other comments: “Staff don’t trust the process”, “I won’t speak up again as it backfired badly” and “why have we been so slow in dealing with these issues?”

Managers are prone to sweeping complaints under the carpet, the whistleblower said.

“The first port of call for a manager if somebody has been complained about is to try and say it didn’t happen. It’s a culture of secrecy and cover-up.”

But Harris rejected that, saying all complaints are taken seriously and the informant should have come to him.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford said he wants his staff to investigate.

“I take very seriously the kinds of concerns and allegations that are being made. I am going to make sure that a senior Ministry of Transport official sits down with this whistleblower and listens to what they have to say.”

And Twyford promised to protect the person, saying he’ll “guarantee their confidence and anonymity”.

The informant told Newshub that while he didn’t want to offend the minister, he “does not have confidence his job would be safe” if he met in-person with an official. He did agree to speaking to the official over the phone.

The whistleblower’s comments follows a report into a helicopter crash in Fox Glacier in 2015 which killed seven people, including pilot Mitch Gameren.

That report found the CAA knew of issues with the operator for years, but failed to intervene.

Mitch Gameran’s father Paul says the offer to meet the whistleblower is not enough. He said what is really needed is a “full independent inquiry” of the CAA.

And he had a blunt message for the Minister: “Get off your arse and do something about it. Seven people perished in a bad accident. We need to get to the bottom of it.

“And if the CAA are not operating properly, do something about it. That’s your job.

“When the auditors are going out and picking holes in a company and the CAA do nothing about it, what the hell’s the point in having them there?”

Gameren says the fact a current CAA staff member is speaking out says a lot about the organisation.

“If their staff have no faith in their management, how can civilians think that they’re doing the job properly?”

The whistleblower says there has been a pattern of failures over decades and the failures are systemic.

They include the Air Adventures crash which killed eight people in 2003. A coroner’s hearing into that tragedy found the CAA had received 20 complaints about pilot Michael Bannerman and his company, yet he was never grounded.

In response to the Air Adventures crash, the CAA said it had changed its processes.

In 2012, 11 people were killed when a hot air balloon crashed in Carterton. Before the accident, the CAA knew of complaints about pilot Lance Hopping using cannabis and, on one occasion, being too drunk to fly. He was never grounded.

Asked whether the Transport Minister should intervene, the CAA informant said “absolutely” and supported Paul Gameren’s call for an independent inquiry “into the whole structure of the CAA”.