Case studies in political conflicts of interest

The Prime Minister has blundered badly by stating that she basically believes Madeleine Setchell should never have been appointed to her job in the first place (she agreed that it was a mistake that her application was progressed at all).

This makes it a story now not just about DPB but about Helen Clark and fundamental issues around the neutrality of the public service.

No Right Turn labels the PM’s statement as “The end of public service neutrality” and he is right – it is that big. The PSA is also concerned and has called on the SSC to clarify the position.

So the Labour has instituted a new rule that you can not hold any sort of senior job in the public service if you have a family member associated with the National Party. This is in complete contrast to how National has treated such issues. I’m going to go through four case studies to show how far Labour has plummeted.

Case Study 1 – Alison Timms

Alison Timms is now a professional director but was a civil servant for many years. Her husband is Tony Timms. Tony Timms is about as 100% Labour as you can get – a former General Secretary (CEO) of the Party itself and then an advisor to Helen Clark – one of her closest advisors.

Alison’s relationship with Tony Timms did not affect her undertaking very senior roles within the Department of Social Welfare from 1994 to 1999.

Even more telling is that under a National Government, Alison was appointed (Acting) Chief Executive of the NZ Fire Service in 1999. Now this was at a time when the Fire Service was hugely controversial, there had been a CIR on it etc. It was a powder keg and potentially a major election issue.

But Alison Timms was appointed, despite her marriage to Tony Timms, because she was trusted to act in a professional manner and not misuse confidential information she had. Because her Minister did not interfere.
Case Study 2 – Alec McLean

Alec McLean is a respected civil servant (and former Olympic rower!) who is currently Helen Clark’s Senior Private Secretary. He is one of the few (very valuable) professional SPSs who work for the Ministerial Services section of DIA. He is married to (or the partner of) Dinah Okeby who has worked for Labour Party MPs since 1984 and was/is Helen Clark’s private secretary.

Now within a Minister’s private office (very different to their Department) the Minister does have basically absolute veto on who works for them, or not. One can absolutely decide not to employ someone because their partner works for an opposing MP. But Alec was employed in the 1990s as a Senior Private Secretary (the most senior role in a Minister’s office) by both Deputy PM Don McKinnon and Tony Ryall, despite his wife working for Helen Clark. That is because they trusted his professionalism and that he and his wife could separate out their professional and persona lives.

So we have two clear examples of potential conflicts of interest which was massively more substantial than a 3rd or 4th level manager in the Environment Ministry having a press secretary as a partner. In neither case were they denied a job or moved out of one, because of the potential conflict.
Now for the next two case studies, let us look at a situation where the grounds for moving someone out of a job are far greater- when it is the actual civil servant who has the political connection, not their partner.

Case Study 3 – Verna Smith

Verna Smith stood for Labour in 1996. You can not get more a political conflict of interest than that. She was No 25 on their list, missing out by just four places.

Both prior to and after the 1996 election Verna was a senior manager with the Department of Social Welfare. I don’t have all her roles but she has been policy and strategy manager for CFA, General Manager of CYF Contracting, and CYF General Manager of Social Work etc.

All senior roles, and ones which the then Minister recalls often involved attending meetings and briefings in the Minister’s office. So even the fact she was a Labour Party candidate did not result her being moved to a different job. Again she was trusted not to misuse information she learnt at work.

Case Study 4 – Parekura Horomia

Parekura Horomia in the 1990s was a civil servant and a highly ranked Regional Manager for Te Puni Kokiri. Prior to that he was general manager of the Community Employment Group.

He stood for Labour in the 1999 election. He was a confirmed Labour Party candidate for the best part of a year. His job was in an area which undoubtedly he would be involved with as an MP.  But despite this he was not shifted sideways.  He did not lose his job until the mandatory stand down for the election campaign.

So all four case studies show that there have been far far greater political conflicts of interests that that of  Madeleine Setchell, and they have never had their careers suffer for it.  Yet, despite this history, Helen Clark believes Madeleine Setchell should never have been appointed to her role.  Helen Clark’s view of a neutral public service is very different to National’s.  This is of course why Wellington was named Helengrad by some civil servants.

If a future National Government was to adopt Helen Clark’s views as the standard for ineligibility to hold senior or sensitive roles in the public service, then dozens and dozens of civil servants would be out of their jobs.  Fortunately National has confirmed they will not behave like Labour has.

I shudder to think what life will be like in the public service if Labour get back for a fourth term.  Helen Clark’s view that having a family member associated with National is reason enough not to be employed, will reign.

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