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Rob Campbell maintains his comments about National’s water plan were made as a private citizen
Rob Campbell maintains his comments about National’s water plan were made as a private citizen

The BulletinFebruary 28, 2023

The line between private citizen and public servant

Rob Campbell maintains his comments about National’s water plan were made as a private citizen
Rob Campbell maintains his comments about National’s water plan were made as a private citizen

Te Whatu Ora chair Rob Campbell says his comments on social media about National’s water infrastructure plan were made as a private citizen. Does that distinction apply in this case, asks Anna Rawhiti-Connell in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.


An outsider still bound by code of conduct

Rob Campbell is a self-described outsider according to this profile by the Herald’s Matt Nippert (paywalled). A former unionist, turned corporate director, Campbell is now the chair of crown agencies Te Whatu Ora and the Environmental Protection Agency, and chancellor at Auckland University of Technology. A column of his about infrastructure featured in The Bulletin just last week. He is on the record as supporting co-governance. His candour has often marked him as different from other public sector leaders. None of that disqualifies him from being bound by the code of conduct for Crown entity board members that says they must “act in a politically impartial manner”.

National calls comments “appalling”

Over the weekend Campbell posted a link to the National party’s newly released water infrastructure plan on LinkedIn. He went on to say he thought National’s policy was a thin disguise for the dog whistling on co-governance and questioned the wisdom of the plan. National’s Simeon Brown called the comments “appalling”, while Act’s David Seymour says Campell should lose his job. Prime minister Chris Hipkins would not express confidence in Campbell yesterday and the matter now lies with health minister Ayesha Verrall and environment minister David Parker.

David Seymour questions political neutrality of “large parts of the Wellington bureaucracy”

Seymour went further in a tweet last night, writing 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.” You could cynically say this is a bit like marking your own homework but in a recent survey done by BusinessDesk, 97% of public sector employees said they had a good understanding of what it meant to be a politically neutral public servant. They were more concerned about their ability to give “free and frank advice” and transparency, with comments pointing to a fear of political or career repercussions and media “sensationalism”.

“By gum, he’s got to be a lot more thoughtful”

Campbell maintains his comments were made as a private citizen. There are contexts where you could argue about the line between private and public, especially on social media where lines do blur. Campbell’s situation seems more clear cut. There is also a “what’s good for the goose, is good for the gander” argument here about setting an example or at the very least, not casting doubt on the public service’s neutrality for the sake of the many who do hold their tongues in public. No one is truly politically neutral, and Campbell’s views have never been hidden but in this instance, there is a line and the need for the perception of political neutrality to be maintained. Speaking to RNZ’s Craig McCulloch this morning, former government statistician Len Cook recalls getting into hot water in 1977, when he wrote a paper critiquing the pension. On Campbell, Cook had this to say: “New Zealand doesn’t want to lose his forthrightness, but by gum he’s got to be a lot more thoughtful about how he applies it.”

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