Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Mallard and crony appointments

Writing in Stuff, Luke Malpass defends Trevor Mallard's impending corrupt crony appointment as ambassador to Ireland, saying that he will make a good ambassador. And I agree, he might - but that's not the point. The problem with Mallard's appointment isn't whether or not he is suited to it, but the way in which it has been (or will be) done.

Being an ambassador for Aotearoa is a public role. It should therefore be appointed on merit, rather than as an act of political patronage. That's been the norm in the normal public service for over a hundred years, and its still the norm today, but ambassadorships have been partly exempt - largely due to a lingering legacy of English monarchy which saw them as the personal representatives of the monarch rather than of the state ("partly" because most are appointed on merit, which makes the politicians and cronies parachuted in to certain jobs all the more glaring). Malpass tries to justify this as follows:

There is of course the broader question of political appointments to plumb [sic] diplomatic postings. But it is a practice as old as time and practised by both parties as a way for rewarding old hands and ex-speakers.
In 1912 the system of handing our core public service jobs as patronage was also "a practice as old as time and practised by both parties". That didn't make it right. And the same reasons which justify appointment on merit in the regular public service apply just as strongly to diplomatic postings: in a modern, democratic state, we want the best person for the job, not the biggest crony. No government job should be a "spoil" to be dispensed as an act of political patronage.

If Mallard is as suitable as Malpass suggests, he would have nothing to fear from an open, competitive appointment process, and being appointed that way would add significantly to the legitimacy of the appointment (not to mention public trust in government). Conversely, denying him that process means he will forever be tarred as a crony, his ability questioned because of the manner of his appointment. It does both us and him a disservice.

As for Malpass, maybe a political journalist working for a media agency supposedly in service of the public good should be asking that "broader question", rather than simply seeking to justify public corruption.