Thursday 9 March 2023

In its increasingly frenetic rush to distance itself from the least popular aspects of the Ardern government, the Hipkins administration is becoming more and more erratic and inconsistent.

The initial policy reset was reasonable, but the government’s actions subsequently have become abrupt and unpredictable. It is increasingly difficult to discern a clear sense of direction, and hard to escape the conclusion that electoral panic has become the government’s main driver.

Climate change emissions targets have been dropped following cyclone damage to roads. In the best tradition of Yes Minister farce, the Radio New Zealand/Television New Zealand merger establishment board is still meeting weeks after the merger was abandoned. And as the Campbell and Maharey incidents demonstrate differing rules seem to apply to the way in which those appointed to government roles should conduct themselves.

In that regard, it must be acknowledged that governments need competent external people to serve on their various boards and committees and have a right to expect they will comply with recognised professional standards of behaviour. For their part, appointees have a right to expect in return that governments will treat them fairly and consistently.

At first glance, the Rob Campbell situation looked like a straightforward – but bizarre – case of someone who had breached the expectation of political neutrality, and therefore had to go. The fact that he was a highly experienced professional, independent director raised eyebrows as to what had occasioned his apparent brain fade. There was little initial sympathy for him, with many concluding that he should have known better and had therefore brought his sackings upon himself.

However, his subsequent comments and those from Ministers paint a more disturbing picture. It is now clear that Campbell was dismissed less for his public criticisms of the National Party leader, than for his ongoing internal questioning of whether the government’s health reforms he was leading were proceeding in the right direction. His warnings that the government’s flagship reforms were being stalled by a “constipated” bureaucracy had become too trenchant for the government to want to keep hearing. Ministers were clearly looking for an excuse to not only get rid of him, but also make him the scapegoat for the failure of the reform process so far.

Yet the official grounds for his removal remain – his public comments on National’s attitude to co-governance breached the expectation of political neutrality, and therefore the government’s expectations. All of which they might have got away with, had it not been for the emergence of the Maharey situation while the dust was still settling on the Campbell case.

Maharey is a doctrinaire former Labour Minister who chairs the ACC, PHARMAC, and Education NZ Boards. He is far more a reliable upholder of the Labour faith than ever Campbell was, and therefore more valuable to the government. He felt obliged to draw to the government’s attention that he also wrote political columns critical of the National Party, and offered, in the light of Campbell’s fate, to stand down from his appointed roles.

Given the stress the Prime Minister had placed last week on the importance of preserving political neutrality in these roles and why Campbell’s comments had made his position untenable, Maharey’s offer to resign on similar grounds should have been accepted immediately and without further question. That would have been the consistent thing to do.

But consistency does not seem to be a value Hipkins is attracted to. Instead of acting decisively on the Maharey case, as it did with Campbell, his government resorted to all sorts of prevarication. First, was the Prime Minister’s banal suggestion that Maharey’s case was not as serious as Campbell’s because Maharey’s critical language had been softer than Campbell’s. Then came the excuse from the Health Minister that the Public Service Commission was still investigating whether Maharey had breached the rules, notwithstanding Maharey’s admission he had already done so.

The Commission’s subsequent finding that while Maharey had breached the rules, it was at the lower end of the scale so did not require his dismissal is simply perplexing. Maharey is a seasoned political operator who knew full well what he was doing, not just once but on the several occasions, by his own admission, that he wrote politically loaded commentaries.

That the government chose not to take the high ground and dismiss him like Campbell simply smacks of a desperate attempt to keep a political friend on the public sector gravy train, rather than the application of the behaviour standards applying to government appointees. The rules that applied last week when Campbell was dismissed, apparently do not apply to members of the Labour family like Maharey. In his determined rush to clear the decks of anything that could be awkward for Labour in election year, the Prime Minister appears to be increasingly disregarding the value of consistency.

Beyond Campbell and Maharey, the bigger picture created by these events has become more disturbing and unclear, because of the chaotic way in which they have been handled. All government-appointed Board chairs and directors must now be scratching their heads about what the current rules regarding political neutrality are being applied at present, and more importantly, how consistently they will be applied.

The greater risk emerging from the government’s quixotic approach is that good people will become less inclined to accept appointments to government boards, because of the uncertainties created by its handling of these recent events. The talent pool of people competent and experienced enough to fill these roles is already a limited one, with the same names cropping up time and time again, mainly because of the small size of our country.

In the overall interests of sound governance, we cannot afford to lose the services of good people because of this uncertainty. Nor can we tolerate a government that treats previously accepted rules and standards of behaviour as its personal plaything, to be acknowledged, applied, or abandoned, only as and when it sees fit, but always to its political advantage.    

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