Thursday, August 05, 2004

Political Neutrality

There's been more shit flying around this morning over the resignation of Amokura Panoho, with more people noticing the apparent double standard. There's a long list of MPS - Pita Paraone, Parekura Horomia, Mita Ririnui, Mahara Okeroa - who have stood for election and held their jobs throughout. Presumably they just didn't walk into the candidacy on nomination day, and played some role in party organisation beforehand. Likewise, Ms Panoho stood for election in 1999 as a candidate for Mauri Pacific (Tau Henare's doomed party) and it was not a problem (though again, she had to take leave during the campaign). So what makes this case different?

The simple answer is a complaint. And that's where the whole thing really starts to smell, because that complaint has clear elements of both self-interest and revenge. The complaint was laid by proxies for John Tamihere, who coincidently represents the same electorate that Ms Panoho was active in, and who is looking to be facing a brutal battle with the party she is supporting for control of the seat. Then there's the revenge factor - it is clear that some in Labour are annoyed at the formation of the Maori Party, and are pulling out all the stops in an effort to crush it. This apparantly extends to attempting to ruin the careers of public servants.

The rule for public servants is that they must be politically neutral - but this isn't just a matter of fact, but of perception. And therefore its clear that complaints make a difference. Parekura Horomia was higher up the ladder than Ms Panoho, yet his activity in the Labour Party was not a problem because nobody complained.

The problem is that Labour aren't the only people who can play this game. Supporters of the Maori Party are no doubt making a list and checking it twice before making their own complaints - and standing ready to contact the media if any are dismissed, because there's no better story than a double standard. And the result of this will be to make the lives of public servants utter hell.

Despite the requirement for political neutrality, public servants also have a right to political participation. How this interacts with the job is very much a matter for judgement, and is resolved through discussion with management and ultimately in the conscience of individual public servants. Ms Panoho displayed enormous professionalism when she chose to resign rather than fight an obvious political beat-up; she put the interests of the public service before her own. Other public servants make even greater sacrifices (the new State Services Commisioner, Mark Prebble, has reportedly sacrificed his relationship with his own brother (former ACT leader Richard Prebble) in the pursuit of perceived neutrality). We should not be rewarding them by turning the public service into a political battleground.