Monday, July 23, 2007

The end of public service neutrality

On Friday, the State Services Commissioner released his briefing on the sacking of Madeleine Setchell, revealing that her dismissal was instigated by a member of the Minister for the Environment's staff questioning her appointment on political grounds. The Prime Minister today claimed that the staffer acted on his own initiative, and had not discussed the issue with the Minister, but even if we accept that (and I'm not sure that we should; in some Ministerial offices people don't sneeze without being told to), it is more than bad enough. What she is saying is that people can now be sacked from the public service on a Ministerial advisor's say-so - a clear violation of the CEO's independence in employment matters.

But it gets worse. On "Morning Report" this morning, the Prime Minister also came out and said outright that the problem was that Ms Satchell was appointed in the first place (quoted here; audio here (5:15)). So, that's it, then: under Labour, those with views (or partners) deemed "too close" to the opposition need not apply. It is difficult to see this as anything other than an end to public service neutrality - not to mention an invitation for any future National government to purge any public servant with similar "connections" to Labour. While John Key has said there will be no utu from National, if it does happen, Labour would not have a moral leg to stand on.

This isn't just wrong, it is also stupid. Quite apart from the inherant desirability of a neutral public service appointed on merit rather than political loyalty, as Tracy Watkins points out in the Dominion-Post this morning, we're just too small for a US-style changeover of top-level staff every time there is a change of government. New Zealand has only a limited number of skilled bureaucrats, policy wonks, and public sector managers, and there simply is no alternative workforce in thinktanks and universities waiting to step in when the government changes. With such a limited talent pool, we simply cannot afford to exclude qualified people on the basis of Ministerial authoritarianism and paranoia. Unfortunately, that now seems to be exactly the direction we are heading in.

Incumbent governments tend to grow more arrogant and authoritarian the longer they last. One of the reasons we de-elect them is so they can learn some humility. Labour is beginning to look like it is in need of such a lesson. Unfortunately, the "cure" - a National government which still has not completely rejected the revolution, and with sharply authoritarian tendencies of its own - is probably worse than the disease.