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


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