Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Going too far

In 2007, Madeleine Setchell was sacked from the Ministry for the Environment on the grounds that her partner's political views created a conflict of interest. At the time, the National Party screamed bloody murder about it, and rightly so - the sacking violated public service standards of neutrality, and impugned Ms Setchell's professionalism. Now, they're planning on institutionalising that treatment:

Civil servants will be encouraged to discuss their political activities with their managers and the political interests of close family members under new guidelines released yesterday.


The Political Neutrality Guidance document sets out the requirement for state servants to be apolitical when carrying out their duties, while the larger general guidance on the commission's code of conduct also includes new sections on political activities.

In an addition to the previous version of the guidance published in 2007, the document encourages state servants to discuss actual or intended political activities with their manager and goes on to say that political interests of close family members may have the potential to conflict with state servants' obligations.

(Emphasis added)

While it is right and proper that public servants conduct themselves with political neutrality, this is going too far, and it invites the persecution of public servants based on the political allegiance and activities of their partners, parents, and siblings - exactly has happened to Ms Setchell. It also, as pointed out by Tracy Watkin at the time (link offline, but see here) limits the pool of possible public servants - something which is a huge mistake in a country as small as ours. Former State services Commissioner Mark Prebble provides all the example we need that a public servant can conduct themselves with professionalism to the satisfaction of multiple governments while having politically active relatives.

Professional public servants should not be victimised based on the political views of their relatives. Neither should they be forced to choose between their careers and their loved ones. This decision is cruel and it is wrong. It should be rescinded immediately, before it does permanent damage to our public service.