• Are Civil Servants Disposable?

    Trevor Mallard may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Even his friends might concede that he occasionally betrays a lack of judgment. But, in his criticism of Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Bush when the senior policeman appeared before a Select Committee, he was entirely justified.

    Trevor Mallard has a long experience of public life and his awareness of its basic principles is reliable. He recognised, as did many observers, that the eulogy delivered by Mike Bush on the occasion of former Detective Inspector Bruce Hutton’s funeral – containing as it did an assertion that a police officer who had been found by a Royal Commission of Inquiry to have planted evidence in a murder trial had an unsullied reputation for integrity – could not be allowed to pass without challenge.

    The excuses offered for this remarkable statement – that Mike Bush was quoting words from another source or that it was a private occasion – do not stand up. There is no way that it could be seen as other than a public rejection, by the police as an organisation, of the finding of the Royal Commission or, alternatively, as a statement that the finding was of no consequence. Either way, the message is clear – the police loyalty is to their own rather than to acceptable standards of policing.

    One might have thought that the Minister of Police would recognise the danger to the police if that perception gained ground with the public. But her riposte to the effect that Trevor Mallard’s challenge was an instance of “bullying” failed lamentably to take this on board. Is the Minister really saying that a Member of Parliament should not be allowed to point out that public confidence in the police can only suffer if the police are seen to refuse to recognise that such a serious breach of acceptable standards has been committed? Is the Minister really happy to leave the matter as it stands – and as represented by Mike Bush’s assertion?

    However inappropriate it may be in this instance, it is of course commendable in principle that the Minister should defend her public servants; but her response is in marked contrast to the attitude increasingly taken by ministers in this government. It is now common practice, when things go wrong, for ministers – not to defend their officials, but to blame them – as a means of avoiding any responsibility themselves.

    The most recent and egregious example is the fallout from the Novopay debacle. A process that has created huge damage to an important public sector undertaking – our schools – was monitored and eventually signed off by three ministers; when they put their signatures to the sign-off, they in effect accepted responsibility for what they had decided.

    We are now told that they did not know what they were signing because they had been provided with inaccurate information by their officials. The consequence is that the senior officials involved have been hung out to dry; two have departed (the second under threat of an investigation) and the pressure is mounting against the third.

    The ministers, however, sail on unchallenged and unaffected. It was not, it seems, anything to do with them. In this, they are following an unfortunate precedent set – amongst others – by Murray McCully.

    Just over a year ago, it may be recalled, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade was to undergo a huge shake-up. The numbers of posts and of diplomats were to be slashed; appointments of ambassadors were to be made following advertisements for applicants.

    When these plans were eventually abandoned, or at least substantially curtailed, the Minister declared that they were nothing to do with him. According to Murray McCully, MFAT’s Chief Executive, John Allen, was to blame and should carry the can. The Minister was, he assured Morning Report in March last year, merely “the purchaser of services” from the ministry.

    This novel doctrine is, of course, in marked contrast to the keenness of his ministerial colleague to make common cause with the public servants who work for her in the police. It also raises an interesting difference in approach from that taken by another minister – the Attorney General, Chris Finlayson.

    The Attorney General, we learn, is upset by a Supreme Court decision that advice from a civil servant to a minister is not protected by parliamentary privilege – indeed, he is so upset that he intends to legislate so as to make it clear that a civil servant and a minister are joined at the hip and must both be protected.

    The Herald takes the same view. That view could be argued to represent a significant extension of parliamentary privilege (as the Supreme Court decided). But, in any case, if civil servants are so integral a part of parliamentary process that they and their ministers are in effect one and the same, shouldn’t they be less easily thrown to the wolves when it suits the government?

    Bryan Gould

    13 June 2013

    This article was published in the NZ Herald on 17 June.

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