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OPINIONPoliticsMarch 9, 2023

This public service neutrality scandal is (weirdly) New Zealand at its most beautiful

Rob Campbell
Rob Campbell

This could have been the beginning of a dangerous path. Instead, New Zealand has weathered the post-Rob Campbell storm admirably, writes Duncan Greive.

Another case of a board chair being political has been reported in the community,” my colleague Stewart Sowman-Lund wrote on Slack yesterday, as news broke that Ruth Dyson, former Labour MP and current deputy chair of Fire and Emergency NZ, had faced tricky questions over tweets criticising current National leader Christopher Luxon. This followed Steve Maharey, ex-Labour MP and now chair of the ACC and Pharmac boards, quitting a Stuff column after self-reporting it as being overly political.

It shows the continuing fallout from the Rob Campbell affair, which saw the chair of two more government boards ousted from each after making statements highly critical of newly announced National party policy on LinkedIn. It could be viewed as a mask off moment; as vindicating Act leader David Seymour’s statement in the aftermath that “Rob Campbell is just the tip of the iceberg. Large parts of the Wellington bureaucracy are openly sympathetic to the Left and that is a serious problem.”

Only, it isn’t. In fact, this episode only serves to underscore one of New Zealand’s most underrated and valuable characteristics, in that our public service for the most part really does try very hard to embody political neutrality, our parties really do respect them for it, and even low-key violations of this really do cause drama.  

It’s just a year since public service commissioner Peter Hughes ruled that Kāinga Ora breached rules around political neutrality in the way it handled future Labour MP Arena Williams’ appearance in an ad campaign. A year before that, Hughes staunchly defended the police commissioner from a suggestion of politicisation by Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan. 

A decade earlier, National caused disquiet on the left when an NZ on Air board member, Stephen McElrea, questioned the screening of an anti-poverty documentary just four days out from the 2011 election. McElrea was chair of prime minister John Key’s electorate office at the time, and was accused of a politically motivated interference to protect the perception of political neutrality (no one is saying this stuff is uncomplicated).

The fact these relatively minor infractions were major news stories suggests that this is something deeply ingrained in our national psyche. Both Dyson and Maharey acknowledged this, not in their actions, but in the seemingly very genuine contrition each has expressed. 

Campbell is a different case. He’s beyond doubling down, blasted through tripling down and now making a good run at quadrupling down on his position that he needs to be able to say whatever the hell he wants regardless of how much he is paid to do an important public job. That only goes to prove him a singularly inappropriate figure for the positions he held, which require tact, restraint and a deep understanding of just why we value neutrality in the first place.

The reason this really matters is because of the absolute nightmare that is the alternative. Politicised employees to high office are common in other countries. Trump is hardly a model for good governance, but his appointment of a staunch Republican to lead the NOAA, the US public weather bureau, was utterly typical and within conventions. That person was Joel Myers, who Bloomberg describes as having spent “30 years trying to destroy” the public weather service, a job he found much easier while leading the organisation. The current BBC chair made headlines recently due to his having arranged for a loan for previous PM Boris Johnson, while closer to home the ABC’s chair resigned in 2017 after trying to get journalists disliked by the then-Liberal government fired.

We still have political appointees here, particularly to public sector boards, which are suggested and signed off by the relevant minister. This explains why former Labour MPs have prominent roles on a large number of them. As soon as National is back in power, expect that they will consider the most able candidate for vacant positions to be, surprise surprise, a former colleague too. 

None of these people magically forget their political views upon appointment. It’s hardly a surprise that Dyson was not impressed by Luxon’s speech at Waitangi, or that Maharey has a sympathetic view of Labour’s record under Ardern. But the job of governing a major public organisation is made easier when those doing so can refrain from offering (truly very basic) critiques of people who could within months be their bosses. That way when a new government in it can operate from a position of trust as it seeks to implement its agenda.

Because ultimately sensible people can and should disagree about how reform might be enacted. But we as a country believe much more strongly than most that the name public service tells you a lot about the nature and function of the job. And while there are occasions when there is a nobility to making a firm public stand against a political decision, none of the recent statements seem to rise to that level. All instead exist as doctrinaire and highly predictable responses to routine political announcements.

All this seems powerfully cool for us as a country – indicative of a moderate and even-tempered psyche highly compatible with the centrist democracy under which we operate. Whatever party you tend to back, it’s going to be out of power as often as not, sometimes more. A neutral public service means someone is looking out for the institution, rather than attempting to tear it to pieces. 

They might do some things you disagree with, but in most cases they can be undone with sufficient will. When you return to power you can get back to your vision, rather than trying to rebuild it. This is necessarily imperfect, but that’s democracy – notoriously the least worst political system of all. This recent bout of agonising over political neutrality actually showed almost all participants doing the right thing (some belatedly, but still). Instead of being chilled by it, we should instead indulge in a rare moment of unambiguous national pride.

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