Tuesday, April 14, 2015

National's bridge bribe and public service neutrality

The core idea of our public service is that it is a professional, politically neutral body. Its there to advise the government of the day on its options and how to implement policy. Its not there to help them win elections. This is reflected in the Cabinet Manual, with rules around government advertising, and an explicit warning to Ministers that

Before and after an election, the incumbent Ministers should ensure that any requests they make for advice or information from their officials is for the purposes of their portfolio responsibilities and not for party political purposes.

Over on Polity, Rob Salmond has been excavating how these rules were broken by Transport Minister Simon Bridges in the leadup to the announcement of National's Northland bridge bribe.

The core documents are here. Bridges claims that:
I did not seek any advice from the Ministry of Transport or the New Zealand Transport Authority on the commitment to upgrade 10 single-lane bridges in the Northland region.

However, general information concerning single-lane bridges in Northland was received over a period of time.

But the material released shows that he did. The same day that a 3News poll showed that Winston Peters was ahead (so, when it was being circulated for comment and hinted at over Twitter by Gower), Bridges received advice from NZTA on single land bridges in Northland. Unfortunately the requests for that advice were outside the scope of the OIA request, but the response gives some information about what was requested:
You also asked questions about the Draft Northland Regional Land Transport Plan.
  • What projects does the “Bridge Replacements” include (page 38 of draft RLTP)? We can’t answer that – would have to get more info from council.
  • Are the Matakohe, Kaeo, and Taipa bridge replacements likely to make the NLTP, and are the costs in the RLTP NZTA estimates or local estimates? We can’t answer that at this time. The RLTP hearings are on now. The Board will decide on the confirmed list on 30 June.
You asked for a priority list of bridge replacements. We don’t have such a list as all of the state highway bridges are currently structurally sound.
A second email the next day starts with "Here’s the info requested on bridge replacement costs" and notes that
You asked the following: Could you also find out everything you can on the FNDC Bridge Replacements 2015-18, and the WDC HPMV Bridge Upgrades, and send this through as fast as you can.
[Their emphasis]. Which makes it pretty clear what was being requested. The result was an extensive list of possible bridge upgrades and their costs. And three days later, once the weekend was over, National announced its bridge bribe. Connecting the dots, Bridges misused the public service for party political purposes, effectively to formulate a pork-barrel policy in a failed effort to sway the voters of Northland. That appears to have violated the Cabinet Manual. The question is whether John Key will hold him to account, or whether he condones this abuse of Ministerial power.