Now let’s take each player one by one
The PSA win the good guy award. As a trade union they are generally very cozy with a Labour Government, but by speaking out (no doubt due to many concerned members contacting them) they remind people of the salient point. To quote them:
“The commissioner says it would be wrong to conclude anyone with political family connections is unwelcome in the public service. But I’m afraid I’m not reassured because of the way this case was handled,” says Brenda Pilott, National Secretary of the PSA, which has 55,000 members working in the state sector.
If the Government gets away with moving someone out of a public service job, just because of their family, then the bar has been moved – and not in a minor way.
We’ll take the bad guys in chronological order. Steve Hurring is a Senior Advisor to David Benson-Pope. He is also a [former] Vice-President of the NZ Labour Party. In a Minister’s office you have a mixture of political appointees and apolitical – he is clearly political. He is a former EPMU union official.
Hurring made the call to the Secretary for the Environment about Setchell. He should have made no such call. The whitewash excuse that he did not know if she was Taylor’s partner and was just checking if it was true is crap. You would not call the CEO to find that out. You would call her direct report. You call the CEO to complain.
But at the end of the day Hurring is only a minor villain. Because there can be no doubt that he would not have made that call without his Minister’s permission or more likely at his request.
Logan has acted disgracefully as CEO of the Environment Ministry. His only response to the Minister’s Office should have been “We trust this person’s professionalism. We have of course made very clear to her the absolute need for discretion and confidentiality. If she ever gives us cause for concern then we will take action, but as her employer she has my confidence to behave impartially”.
Logan is a bad employer and has seriously dented confidence in an apolitical public service. He has failed his staff and frankly I think his position is untenable. How could any future Government have confidence in him?
David Benson-Pope has a habit of being, shall we say, evasive with the truth. After denying he knew any details about the case, the SSC report reveals he had a direct briefing on the case by Hugh Logan. The SSC report did not interview Benson-Pope or Hurring so we do not know how often they discussed it between themselves.
Of course the Minister should not have authorised Hurring to complain to Logan. By dong so he politicised the public service. The SSC report states that Logan not Benson-Pope made the decision to move Setchell from her job. This is an irrelevant truism. Of course Logan made the decision – it is impossible for anyone else to have done so. That is not the issue. The issue is what views did Hurring and Benson-Pope express to him, and how much he was influenced by them. Keeping the Minister happy sits very high on CEO’s priorities.
This is the person who has most disappointed me. I expect Benson-Pope to behave like he did, but it is incredibly regrettable that the head of the public service has become complicit in defending what happened, rather than protecting the public service’s neutrality. Prebble went into print last week claiming that what happened did not mean people with family in politics could not work in the public service. But as the PSA pointed out, one can no longer reach that conclusion.
Prebble as head of the public service should have been telling his Environment CEO not to damage the neutrality of the public service, that managing the conflict has almost never meant removing them from their job, and that the CEO’s response to the Minister should have been to assert independence over staff decisions and reassure the Minister of faith on his staff’s professionalism and integrity.
I don’t know Prebble particularly well. He worked in DPMC when I was in the PMs Office but I was about as junior as you can get on the totem pole, and he was at the very top. But I have always regarded him as one of the most intelligent and competent public servants NZ has. We’re certainly way better off for his contributions over many year.
But if I had one major criticism, it would his tendency to put his loyalty to the Government of the Day ahead of his loyalty to the institution of Government. We saw it over Corngate and we see it again today. And it is a worrying tendency for someone who is now head of the public service.
I have never met Madeleine Setchell. But some Google research shows that she has worked in the public service for many years, in roles very similiar to the one she took up at the Environment Ministry. It is unthinkable that the Ministry CEO would have asked her to leave her job had he not had a call from the Minister’s Office. She has previously been a Senior Comms Advisor for MAF and a spokeswoman for OSH in the DOL. Presumably she left a current job to take up the Environment job, and is now out of work.
As everyone has stressed she has behaved entirely properly in disclosing her relationship, and there has been no reason at all to suggest she has not and would not act in a professional manner. It is ironic that Steve Hurring [was] is the union vice-president of Labour, as his actions (on behalf of DBP) led to a worker losing her job for no good reason – something unions are meant to be against.
Kevin worked for the NZ Herald for many years, and was a professional journalist. A couple of years ago he took up a role as a senior press secretary to the Leader of the Opposition and late last year was promoted to chief press secretary.
Staff in the leader’s office broadly are of two types. Those with a party background, and those without. People like myself in National, or Tony Timms (or Steve Hurring) in Labour are what jokingly get called the true believers.
The other staff, while certainly comfortable with what a party stand for, are not party members or activists. Examples are Mike Munro in Labour, Rob Eaddy in United Future and Kevin Taylor.
So Kevin isn’t a party hack. He comes from a journalist background, and like his partner, has moved into communications. I haven’t chatted to him about this, but can only just imagine how mortified he is having his relationship such a matter of public debate. He’s also a victim in this.
So of al the four bad guys, who is most to blame? I am tempted to say Hugh Logan who as CEO undoubtedly made totally the wrong call in asking Setchell to leave her job.
But at the end of the day I ask one question. If Steve Hurring had not made that phone call on behalf of his Minister, is there any real possibility Logan would have removed her from her job? No there is none. So Benson-Pope has to take responsibility. He had direct conversations with the CEO on this and Hurring works at his direction.
At the end of the day this is not an issue just about one civil servant who lost her job. It is about whether one has a neutral public service or a partisan public service. I am not in favour of an American style public service, and it is a shame to see the head of the civil service trying to pretend that what happened was acceptable.
UPDATE: Hurring is no longer a Labour Party Vice-President. The Labour website was two years out of date!