Bryce Edwards: The Need to depoliticise the public service

Bryce Edwards: The Need to depoliticise the public service

Is the Chair of Te Whatu Ora Health New Zealand, Rob Campbell, trying to rid himself of a job he no longer wants? The idea that he’s trying to get himself fired is the most obvious conclusion to draw from his overt attempts over the weekend to stoke up opposition to the National Party’s Three Waters reform proposals.

The health boss has published his strident views on the National Party and its leader, implying they are being racist. His partisan statement is a clear breach of the code of conduct for senior public servants like himself.

Such politicised public statements are not normally acceptable from what is meant to be an impartial and professional public service. The bureaucracy serves the public and democracy best when it is not operating along partisan lines nor helping the election chances of one political party or another.

In light of this, Campbell’s comments seem to suggest he wishes to be relieved of his job running the health system – a role that is proving especially difficult. Health Minister Ayesha Verrall should probably grant this wish.

What Rob Campbell said

Rob Campbell wrote his very strong critique of the National Party on social media platform LinkedIn, in which the public service boss advertises that he is the Chair of both Te Whatu Ora and the Environmental Protection Authority.

Campbell focused on the National Party’s newly-announced Three Waters policy, arguing it was a thinly disguised “dog whistle on co-governance” – i.e. racist. He went on to target National’s leader: “Christopher Luxon might be able to rescue his party from stupidity on climate change but rescuing this from a well he has dug himself might be harder.”

When challenged about breaching the code of conduct for senior public servants, Campbell has doubled down, saying “Of course I am aware of and adhere to the Code. That Code enjoins me to be ‘honest and open’.” He has also argued that there is a “big difference between being ‘politically impartial’ and being ‘politically neutered’.” And he says he won’t say sorry, because there is “Nothing to apologise for and nobody I need to apologise to”.

Furthermore, Campbell has tried to separate his senior role from his private activities, saying he made the attacks on National in his capacity as a private citizen about an issue unrelated to his health role. He says he can’t see how his statements “could jeopardise my ability to perform my role at Te Whatu Ora nor erode public trust in Te Whatu Ora.”

Why Campbell’s attacks on National are a problem

New Zealand’s public service is based on the concept of impartial professionalism in which individual public servants are not there to play a partisan role, being aligned to any particular politician or party. They are independent, and there to serve the government of the day, whichever politicians are in power. Their role is one of continuity and neutrality. And it means that, unlike other countries such as the US, the senior bureaucracy does not need to be replaced when a change of government occurs.

Senior appointments to the public service – including to crown entities such as Te Whatu Ora and the Environmental Protection Authority – are meant to be made without partisan political influence. They are meant to be based on merit.

The Public Service Commission therefore insists on a code of conduct for Crown Entity board members like Campbell. This states: “We act in a politically impartial manner. Irrespective of our political interests, we conduct ourselves in a way that enables us to act effectively under current and future governments.”

It appears that Campbell has breached this code. He also arguably did this last year when he came out publicly in favour of Green MP Chloe Swarbrick’s members bill to ban alcohol sponsorship in sports.

The response of politicians

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins used to be Minister for Public Service and understands the need for impartial public service bosses. He has therefore been clear on the matter, saying: “There is a code of conduct around political comments by people who hold those roles and his comments for well outside that”.

When asked if he has confidence in Campbell, the Prime Minister refused to express that he did. He has instead said that Campbell now has to be dealt with by the politicians responsible for him – Health Minister Ayesha Verrall and Environment Minister David Parker.

Ominously, Hipkins says: “There’s a natural justice issue here, there is a process.” And by refusing to express confidence or even say that Campbell is still fit for his role, it looks like his days as a public service boss are numbered.

Unsurprisingly, opposition parties are now gunning for Campbell. National’s public service spokesman Simeon Brown has labelled Campbell’s statement as “appalling” and said: “He should clearly be focused on his day job which is fixing our broken health system”.

Similarly, National MP Chris Penk tweeted: “Look, if you want to make spurious criticism of National Party policy without giving up your day job of wrecking the health system, just become Minister in the current government and be done with it.”

Act leader David Seymour has gone further, suggesting that Campbell is a case study in the politicisation of the public service, saying: “Labour has politicised the public service by putting Campbell in charge of Health NZ and he needs to pull his head in or resign.” Furthermore, Seymour alleges: “The reality is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of the Wellington bureaucracy is openly sympathetic to the left and that is a real concern.”

Is the public service becoming politicised?

The eroding neutrality of the public service has been a concern for a number of years now and calls for a depoliticisation process have been growing. Many academics and critics have argued that New Zealand needs a less deferential and subservient public service.

Again and again under both National and Labour governments, there have been stories of the independence of officials declining, and of subservience increasing. Unfortunately, people in those roles are having to serve the “politics of the day” rather than the wider interests of society. The machinery of the state isn’t supposed to be part of the political weaponry of the politicians in power.

Political analyst Colin James has written, for example, that “There is a widely held view, including among public servants, that officials in the past two decades have focused too tightly on serving ministers, even at times anticipating and then serving up what their ministers might want to hear.”

This leads to a problem as public officials are no longer able to provide their masters with free, frank and comprehensive advice. Public servants are no longer able to offer their advice without fear or favour.

The politicisation of the bureaucracy therefore leads to a decline in good governance, integrity and transparency. This takes us down a path towards the US-style bureaucracy of pork-barrel politics and cronyism.

Campbell might need to go, but we need to start talking about “depoliticisation”

It seems unlikely that Campbell can survive the controversy he has created. Public and political confidence in him will have been severely dented. In particular, there will now be doubts in many people’s minds about Campbell’s judgement.

When the Prime Minister makes it clear that he’s not willing to express confidence in a top public servant it suggests that their time is up. It would be difficult for Campbell to remain in place given Hipkins has been so forthright about him.

Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch has said that Campbell is now faced with resigning or being fired: “his comments leave him with two options – be the master of his own destiny and resign, or wait for the Health Minister to finish deliberating his punishment. The outcome of both options is likely the same.”

The bigger picture is that although controversial figures like Campbell come and go, there is a debate to be had about the health and politics of the public service. In particular, it is time for a discussion about the need for some sort of depoliticisation of government agencies to occur.

 

Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  

 

Further reading on Rob Campbell

 

Other items of interest and importance today

 

PARLIAMENT, ELECTION
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): A new poll reveals the shift in political mood
1News: Cost of living the biggest issue facing New Zealanders – poll
Duncan Garner (NBR): Luxon needs to fire up or be replaced (paywalled)
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Election 2023 will be the same issues but through the eye of the cyclone rebuild
Claire Trevett (Herald): Grant Robertson and the clashing crises of the cyclone and the cost of living – can only one win and will it take a flood tax? (paywalled)
Jamie Mackay (Herald): Labour – out of the Covid frying pan and into the Gabrielle fire(paywalled)
Winston Peters (Herald): What happened to the $14 billion Covid recovery money?(paywalled)
Newshub: Former National Party leader Simon Bridges says Chris Hipkins doing ‘really good job’ as new Prime Minister but challenges ahead
Felix Desmarais (1News): Explainer: Is Chris Hipkins an elected prime minister?
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Former president Claire Szabó vs sitting MP Ibrahim Omer in race to replace Grant Robertson
Maria Slade (NBR): Labour list MPs White, Belich nominees for Mt Albert (paywalled)
RNZ: RNZ documentary Boiling Point includes previously unseen footage of the occupation at Parliament
Jack Tame (Newstalk ZB): Have the police missed lessons from the Parliament protest?
Mike Hosking (Newstalk ZB): How much of a role will the conspiracists play in this election?
Catherine Groenestein (Taranaki Daily News): Tributes flow for former National MP Chester Borrows
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Prime Minister Chris Hipkins pays tribute to Chester Borrows after former MP dies from cancer
Herald: Former MP Chester Borrows dies after cancer battle
RNZ: Former National MP Chester Borrows dies
Rotorua Daily Post: Former Rotorua MP and National Party Cabinet minister Paul East dies

THREE WATERS
Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk): Smoke, mirrors and delay – National’s three waters policy(paywalled)
Gordon Campbell: On National’s “do nothing” alternative to Three Waters
Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): Et voilà! Here’s something someone else prepared a little earlier
Chris Trotter (Interest): The Road To October
Neil Holdom (Taranaki Daily News): A suggestion on how to work together to solve New Zealand’s infrastructure problems
RNZ: National’s Three Waters plan fails to impress mayor
Andrew Dickens (Newstalk ZB): I won’t be voting for a party that doesn’t have a cogent water reform policy
John MacDonald (Newstalk ZB): It’s not April 1; National did actually release a policy
David Farrar: The consensus for a Three Waters model

EXTREME WEATHER, CLIMATE CHANGE, INFRASTRUCTURE
Thomas Manch (Stuff): The Government’s disaster recovery playbook, after the Christchurch and Kaikōura earthquakes
Claire Trevett (Herald): PM Chris Hipkins’ cyclone response pilfers from John Key quake manual (paywalled)
Simon Wilson (Herald): The appalling folly of the ‘only adapt’ climate argument (paywalled)
Hamish Cardwell (RNZ): Many flood-damaged homes should not be rebuilt, says climate risk expert
RNZ: Quick calls needed on flood-prone areas – Cyclone Recovery Minister Grant Robertson
Suzanne Wilkinson (The Conversation): ‘Build back better’ sounds great in theory, but does the government really know what it means in practice?
Benjamin Plummer and Raphael Franks (Herald): Managed retreat: West Auckland residents call for voluntary buyouts after repeat flooding
Felix Desmarais (1News): Hipkins ‘comfortable’ with Lotto appeal drive
Rachel Sadler and Amelia Wade (Newshub): Cyclone Gabrielle: International fundraising appeal, special Lotto draw announced to support recovery efforts
Rachel Maher (Herald): Govt reveals special Lotto draw and fundraising appeal to finance rebuild to help those worst hit
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): 1% tax on high pay a possible precedent for a cyclone levy, says Reserve Bank deputy
1News: Expect more extreme weather if emissions not addressed – Swarbrick
Janet Wilson (Stuff): Cyclone victims want clarity, not Wellington good intentions
John Roughan (Herald): We need to see the scale of the disaster (paywalled)
Waatea News: Jackson leads cyclone Gabrielle Māori response
Susan Botting (Local Democracy Reporting): Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says building post-cyclone State Highway 1 resilience will potentially take years
RNZ: Main highway repairs: Waka Kotahi says it could be months before some reopen
Simon Bridges (Herald): Rebuilding our highways for tomorrow’s needs (paywalled)
Rob Gaimster (BusinessDesk): Long-term approach for national roading network needed
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Power problems could drag on 6 months as cyclone damage ‘patched’ not fixed
Newshub: Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says New Zealand could do better at preparing for telecommunication outages
RNZ: Government’s temporary accommodation support expanded to areas hit by Cyclone Gabrielle
Ann Skelton (RNZ): Fatigue and despair from trauma of Cyclone Gabrielle will soon set in for victims
Andrew McRae (RNZ): Gisborne region business welcome cyclone support funding as a good start
RNZ: Cyclone Gabrielle: Farmer says Rissington community still in limbo
Jemima Huston (RNZ): Ruined orchard, damaged winery – Esk Valley copes with daunting job cleaning up
Jamie Gray (Herald): Genesis Energy pushes back on Wairoa flooding claims (paywalled)
Robin Allison (Newsroom): ‘Spongy’ neighbourhoods can reduce flooding in our cities
Damien Venuto (Herald): The Front Page: Summer ruined as rain records broken – how much more can our cities handle?
No Right Turn: Climate Change: The cost of not cutting emissions
Nicolas Lewis and John Morgan (Newsroom): A moment for Auckland
Robert Bartholomew (Newsroom): Finding truth and compassion in the wake of disaster

FORESTRY
Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): Logging inquiry must be just the first step (paywalled)
Andrea Fox (Herald): Pine forestry by far biggest source of East Coast beach slash after Cyclone Hale: council study (paywalled)
Helen Craig (Whanganui Chronicle): Opinion: You can’t eat trees, says Whanganui’s deputy mayor

BENEFICIARY DEBT
Ethan Te Ora (Stuff): Anti-poverty groups call for Government to wipe debt owed to Ministry of Social Development
1News: Anti-poverty groups calling on Govt to wipe all MSD debt
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Anti-poverty groups call for Government to wipe Kiwis’ debt to Ministry of Social Development
Felix Desmarais (1News): ‘Very stressful’: Beneficiary says he ‘can’t afford’ MSD debt
Jayden Holmes (Today FM): Two-thirds of MSD debt comes from overpayment – calls for all MSD debt to be wiped

ECONOMY AND COST OF LIVING
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): Westpac forecasts recession in late 2023, unemployment to rise to 5.2 percent
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): Mortgage pain: Homeowners facing repayment hikes of up to $900 a fortnight
RNZ: Consumers to rein in spending with higher mortgage rates – Westpac
Brianna Mcilraith (Stuff): Cheat Sheet: What is a national food plan, and how would it help our food security?
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): The case for a Kiwi Subsidy on all NZ Kai
Carmen Hall (Bay of Plenty Times): Cost of living: Elderly ‘quietly starving’ as costs keep rising (paywalled)
Stephen Minto (Daily Blog): Scrap GST to fight inflation

HEALTH
Cécile Meier (BusinessDesk): Te Whatu Ora to crack down on health consultant spend
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): Pharmac CEO Sarah Fitt is hiding from my questions – So I’ll ask them here
Megan Wilson (Herald): Tauranga Hospital: Ombudsman rules Te Whatu Ora provided ‘incomplete’ OIA response to Dr Shane Reti (paywalled)
Stephen Forbes (Lcoal Democracy Reporting): Middlemore ED targeted as one of eight national ‘hotspots’
Janine Rankin (Manawatū Standard): Palmerston North Hospital ED is on hotspot watch this winter
Isaac Davison (Herald): A story of two David Seymours: How an advocate for assisted dying got a new lease of life
Nicholas Pointon (NBR): ‘Show me the money’ – Summerset waits for aged care funding boost (paywalled)
Tilly van Eeden (Herald): Whānau Māori with rare disorders faced with myriad inequities in health system
RNZ: Covid-19 update: 9100 new cases, 40 deaths and 200 in hospital

LOCAL GOVERNMENT
Simon Wilson (Herald): Auckland Council: To sell or not to sell – the airport shares(paywalled)
Hamish McNeilly (Stuff): Controversial councillor may be removed from role with disability advisory group
Stephen Ward (Waikato Times: C-bomb councillor Andrew Bydder not backing away from bad language tactics

TRANSPORT
Todd Niall (Stuff): The bus cupboard is bare as ‘March Madness’ looms for Auckland’s public transport
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Complaint made to Commerce Commission over state of Cook Strait ferries
RNZ: Consumer watchdog lays complaint against Cook Strait ferry operators
Tom Hunt (Stuff): ‘Biggest pothole on SH1’: Calls for inquiry into Cook Strait ferry failures
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Newstalk ZB): More Auckland Transport Trouble
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): Transport Minister Michael Wood says Auckland light rail is ‘bread and butter’ issue after criticism over cost
Nikki Mandow (Newsroom): Grim news for the planet, great news for Channel Infrastructure
Emma Hatton (Newsroom): Pacific push to decarbonise the shipping industry
Ian Llewellyn (BusinessDesk): NZ will reach peak petrol by 2025 (paywalled)

FOREIGN AFFAIRS
1News: Japan, NZ to speed up intel sharing pact amid China concerns
Alexander Gillespie (The Conversation): Ukraine a year on: the invasion changed NZ foreign policy – as the war drags on, cracks will begin to show
Andrew Barney (Herald): Why Ukraine conflict means even more to NZ today (paywalled)
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Happy families in Pacific but challenges remain
James Perry (Whakaata Māori): Mahuta to talk Māori business at Japanese roundtable hui
Joshua Kurlantzick (Stuff): Vulnerability a motivation for China’s political influence campaigns
Dileepa Fonseka (BusinessDesk): Plea to not get complacent about Australia-NZ trading relations (paywalled)

MEDIA
Gavin Ellis: Our media keep buggering on (apologies to Winston Churchill)
Matt Nippert (Herald): Cameron Wallace leaves slimmed-down MediaWorks waiting in departure lounge (paywalled)
Grant Bradley (Herald): Cam Wallace quits MediaWorks: ‘It’s an honour to be joining Qantas’ (paywalled)
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): MediaWorks chief executive Cam Wallace to step down
Dita De Boni (NBR): National denies ex-MediaWorks CEO to join its ranks (paywalled)

BUSINESS
Fiona Rotherham (NBR): Annual audit finds issues with Callaghan R&D grant funding(paywalled)
Geraden Cann (Stuff): Construction firm goes bust, general manager starts another three days later
Rob Stock (Stuff): Why did BNZ check the credit file of a former customer without permission
Dileepa Fonseka (BusinessDesk): Will the Chinese big spenders be back? (paywalled)
Rob Stock (Stuff): More than 10,000 flood-damaged cars will be written off by insurers
Greg Hurrell (BusinessDesk): Building a circular ‘bioeconomy’ needs big changes(paywalled)
Esther Taunton (Stuff): Countdown charges online shoppers twice as much for broccoli

EMPLOYMENT
Rebecca Macfie (Newsroom): Courier firm ordered to make driving safe
Sarah Robson (RNZ): The strippers fighting for better work rights
RNZ: Help wanted – and the job ads are there to prove it

ENVIRONMENT
David Williams (Newsroom): Court puts river protection case on fast-track
Brendon McMahon (Local Democracy Reporting): Jobs for Nature scheme transforms Hokitika whitebait spawning area

ARTS
André Chumko (Stuff): No national cultural plan for New Zealand any time soon, minister says
Katie Doyle (Stuff): Prime Minister Chris Hipkins faces questions over funding at Te Matatini
Aaron Smale (Newsroom): Ans Westra: the Dutch woman who showed us ourselves
RNZ: Acclaimed documentary photographer Ans Westra dies

HOUSING
Tom Logan (Stuf): Density done well can bring the vision of many residents to life for Christchurch
Finn Jackson (Stuff): If council can’t make the right call, let the citizens of Christchurch

CENSUS
Damien Venuto (Herald): The Front Page: Census 2023 – why it pays to share your information
Sian Cain (Guardian): Harry Styles required to provide the story of his life for New Zealand census

OTHER
Maria English (The Common Room): How do we do good, better?
Alistair Reese (E-Tangata): Pākehā identity and the Treaty
Kim Mcbreen (E-Tangata): There’s a fine line between appropriation and respect
Zoë George (Stuff): The sordid history behind the Basin Reserve’s Wakefield Memorial
Madison Hamill (Newsroom): Roald Dahl and the big fat fuss
Daniel Smith (Stuff): What will NZ look like when today’s 18-year-olds are middle-aged?
Emma Hatton (Newsroom): Corrections’ push for greater monitoring powers
ODT Editorial: The mixed blessing of the local prison
Mike Yardley (Press): The blue line is being stretched too thin to keep us safe
Belinda Feek (Herald): Government consultant Gannin Orsmby’s estranged son avoids jail for dishonesty conviction
Geraden Cann (Stuff): I cheated on a university essay using ChatGPT
Herald: Conspiracy theorist and former TV presenter Liz Gunn arrested at Auckland Airport