So much for a neutral civil service

The Dom Post reports that Madeleine Setchell has had to give up her new job as head of communications for the Environment Ministry. Why? Because her partner is Kevin Taylor, a former Herald reporter who now works for John Key as Chief Press Secretary.

The article makes it clear the relationship was known, and had been fully disclosed. I have absolutely no doubt that the Minister had over-ruled the Ministry on this issue, and will state why later. For now let us first look at conflicts and relationships.

As the article notes, relationships with potential conflicts are very common in Wellington. The vast majority of them are handled by full disclosure, and by professional behaviour.

There are a few limited cases where the conflict is so large, that a job becomes untenable. Most of these are in the commercial world – for example if you are Marketing Manager for Shell Oil, best you don’t bonk the Marketing Manager for BP.

In the political world, working for a Govt Ministry and a partner working for a political party is pretty mundane and not a major conflict – certainly nothing one can’t manage. Only if say both partners worked directly for opposing political parties, might it be an issue Having the PM’s Chief of Staff and the Opposition Leader’s Chief of Staff dating would not be a good idea for example.

What makes this case worse though is that the relationship had been declared and was known. The Ministry staff who hired her (correctly) did not think the relationship would be a reason not to employ her.

So what makes me say the Minister interfered? Well I’ve seen it before. A few years back a reasonably senior and highly regarded civil servant sought a National nomination. He discussed this with his boss and with the Ministry CEO. They both said they saw no problems with his current role. Just that he would need to take leave once the election campaign starts, as set out in the civil service guidelines.

And then what happened? The Minister (who is still in the Cabinet) found out and hit the roof and demanded he be sacked. And within hours his job was over. It was appalling (and illegal). I am not naming the Minister because the person involved didn’t want a public fuss made at the time. but have no doubt it happened, and that this sort of Ministerial interference is commonplace with the Government.

It is the culture of retribution which led to the name Helengrad – coined by the civil service.

Comments (39)

Login to comment or vote

Add a Comment