Friday, November 16, 2007

Grossly improper

For well over a century now, New Zealand has been blessed with a professional, politically neutral public service, which faithfully serves the government of the day regardless of their ideological bent. A key underpinning of this has been the independence of the public service in employment decisions. Public servants are hired and fired not by Ministers, but by Departmental Chief Executives, a move designed to ensure appointment on merit and prevent cronyism, patronage, and political retaliation. But recently, this has come under threat. First, there was the sacking of Madeleine Setchell on the basis of her partner's political views - an act found to have been simply wrong by a subsequent investigation by the State Services Commission. And now it seems it has a sequel, in the hiring of Clare Curran. Unlike some, I am not interested in Curran's political views - such conflicts of interest are routinely managed within the public service, and pose no real problem. Instead, the problem is how she was hired: her name was originally floated by the acting Minister:

Mr Parker told reporters he had suggested Ms Curran's name to the ministry during a discussion on what communications help it needed.

He had suggested her because "I knew her to be very able in these areas".

Mr Parker said he had known Ms Curran long before she joined the Labour Party through her work with her company Insight Communications.

"I didn't recommend who they should hire and I wouldn't do that," he said.

But regardless of how it was phrased, this is still grossly improper behaviour from a Minister. Chief Executives have a statutory duty to act independently in employment matters, and Ministers should respect this. While the contract was put out to tender, and Curran was appointed on merit, suggesting a specific individual for a position could be seen as an attempt to influence the employment process, and this should be avoided. It is, bluntly, simply not a Minister's business who works for "their" department, and they should keep the hell out of it.