Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Tony Soprano would be proud

So what's the difference between Maori Language Commission CEO Haami Piripi and the Labour Department executive forced to resign because she was a member of the Maori Party? Simply that, unlike Mr Piripi, Ms Panoho was a member of the core public service, and therefore subject to the Public Service Code of Conduct.

Public servants are required to be politically neutral, and to be able to enact both the policy of the government of the day and the policies of future governments. However, this does not necessarily preclude membership of political parties. It does however require avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest.

What gives this whole thing a foul odour is the political context. Ms Panoho's resignation was apparently sparked by a compalint about her behind-the-scenes involvement in the Maori Party's Tamaki Makaurau branch - a complaint made by staff of MP John Tamihere, who is coincidentally the current MP for that electorate. So we have a sitting MP and Minister using the Public Service Code of Conduct in an effort to nobble his electoral competition. No matter which way you look at it, that's fairly ripe.

But there's also a vindictive aspect. Labour's attitude to the Maori Party has been characterised by vindicitiveness and outrage that Maori might be unhappy with Labour's treatment of them. The complaint against Ms Panoho is putting supporters of the Maori Party on notice that their change of allegiance will cost them dearly. Tony Soprano would be proud.

Public servants are permitted to belong to political parties. Frequently they are permitted to be involved "behind the scenes" in strategy and organisation. The limit is generally being publicly identified with a party, or stepping forward into the limelight as a spokesperson or candidate (though even that usually results in a mere leave of absence during the election, rather than a forced resignation). Labour's vindicitve actions invite retaliation - they aren't the only people who can lay complaints - and the result is going to be more resignations, either forced by previously tolerated political activity, or in disgust at perceived double standards. Overall, it is our public service which will be the loser.