Chief executive of publicly-funded online safety organisation quits under the shadow of an employment investigation
Longstanding Netsafe boss Martin Cocker was a subject of an inquiry into alleged workplace bullying when he suddenly resigned in mid-November, effective December 3.
His departure has left the organisation in some turmoil. Newsroom understands there had been multiple internal complaints or counter-complaints involving staff including Cocker and his wife, communications manager Angela Boundy.
An initial broad brush inquiry last year cleared the organisation’s management. But after more complainants came forward a new, two-pronged independent investigation was commissioned from Vicki Campbell, an experienced employment lawyer who has served 14 years on the Employment Relations Authority.
Partway through that inquiry, Cocker quit with just three weeks’ notice, and stepped aside as chief executive with immediate effect.
Netsafe chair Jon Duffy accepted his resignation and terminated the inquiry into the complaints against Cocker. The investigation into the other complaints is continuing, and Campbell is expected to deliver her final report early next year.
Last night, Duffy delivered the annual report to the Netsafe AGM, before quitting the board. In the report he thanked Cocker for his 15 years of leadership. “Martin’s strength of character, respected voice and ability to get stakeholders round the table to solve issues have helped Netsafe grow to the organisation it is today,” Duffy wrote.
After the meeting, Duffy (who is not the subject of any of the complaints) said he stood by his endorsement of Cocker’s leadership and management.
“Yes, I do,” he told Newsroom. “As far as I can tell, as the former chair of the board, yes, I have no problem backing Martin up on that.”
In his brief time as chair, he said the safety and wellbeing of staff had been upheld. “There has been ample effort made to look after the wellbeing of all of the complainants.”
Newsroom asked him if it was acceptable that Cocker be allowed to leave under the shadow of an employment investigation, protected by confidentiality agreements. “I think the Privacy Act would also be in play here,” Duffy said. “This is a private employment matter and I’m not going to comment on it.”
Asked about the balance between protecting an employee’s privacy and ensuring the wellbeing of complainants of bullying, he said it was “a highly circumstantial question” that would vary from case to case.
“Martin has been the CEO of Netsafe for 15 years. And it was an actual combination of discussions that have been had for quite some time between Martin and the board that has really made his decision to resign. You need to put those questions to him.”
Newsroom did ask Cocker why he had quit. “I didn’t leave Netsafe for any untoward reason,” he said. “I know that’s what you’re suggesting in that question. I didn’t leave for any reason other than it was time for me to leave and do something else. I’ve been there 15 years, and I’ve enjoyed those 15 years, but it was time to sort out an opportunity of something different.”
He refused to say what the outcomes of the investigations were. “Angela Boundy is still an employee of Netsafe, and I was, and other people associated with matters internally would still be employees. So I couldn’t talk about any of those things.
“I won’t comment about anybody who’s an employee of Netsafe, no matter what their relationship to me is or not. All I can say is that, to the best of my knowledge, I have not been subjected to a bullying complaint.”
“I can’t speak about any inquiries to do with anything. Those are questions for Netsafe, not for me,” he added. “I can only tell you what I know and what I’ve done. So I made a decision to leave and go do my own thing. That’s how it is.”
Cocker warned that Newsroom should be cautious about what it reported. “I’m not telling you what you can and can’t do, you’re media, but it seems like a pretty significant leap to go to based on what I know has happened.”
Asked what his next career moves were, he said: “I’m setting up something new. And it’s still on online safety, but won’t be up and running until probably March.”
Netsafe is a relatively small organisation with just 25 staff, and revenues of $4 million in the past year for delivering programmes related to online safety. It is funded by the education and justice ministries to provide programmes, including anti-bullying, and also receives funding from industry partners and donations from the public.
It is designated the Approved Agency responsible for policing the Harmful Digital Communications Act, to crack down on online threats and harassment.
Act Party leader David Seymour has lodged Parliamentary written questions for Justice Minister Kris Faafoi, which the minister is due to answer on Wednesday, Parliament’s final sitting day before rising for the summer recess. “What reasons does he understand were behind Mr Cocker’s departure?” he asked. “Would the Minister be concerned if the Approved Agency under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, Netsafe, had sought legal advice regarding bullying complaints against its own staff?”
Seymour told Newsroom he would follow up in the House, in the last question time of the year.
“Minister Faafoi and this Government must reassure New Zealanders that the approved agency they contracted to combat bullying amongst children, and adults for that matter, up and down New Zealand, is up to the standards they set,” he said.
“It’s very hard to uphold high standards if you don’t practise them yourself.”
If Netsafe had spent $400,000-500,000 on investigations, he said, that would be a big chunk of their entire budget.
“There’s also a question of how much of the public money that’s been paid out has, ironically, been used to investigate bullying within Netsafe instead of within New Zealand. And that’s another question, that I think the Minister is responsible for.”
Netsafe’s board has commissioned three inquiries, in total – the initial one in 2020 that gave management a clean bill of health, and then the two inquiries this year by Vicki Campbell. Her first one was a broad culture review; the second a specific one into the complaints against individuals.
Last night, acting chief executive Andrea Leask sent a statement to Newsroom. “The health and welfare of the Netsafe team is a key priority,” she said.
“The Netsafe board engaged an independent third-party to conduct reviews into workplace procedures following comments made by a small number of staff regarding interactions within the team.
“The review found that the majority of employees were positive about the workplace environment and the role they play in keeping people safe online.
“Another independent review is ongoing. We are not able to comment on individual employee matters to protect the privacy of those involved.”
Netsafe’s board was due to appoint a new chair last night. Newsroom sought to ask that person questions about the path forward, but by late in the evening, it remained unclear who had taken the role. Jon Duffy, who had resigned just a couple of hours earlier, said he didn’t know, and Andrea Leask did not reply to questions asking who had been appointed.