A new "Wintringham doctrine"?

Extract from comments to seminar by the Centre for Public Law, 6 August

At noon on 11 July an extraordinary event took place in Room G005 in Parliament. There, at the request of the head of the public service, Michael Wintringham, senior officers of the Ministries for the Environment and of Agriculture and Forestry briefed news media on a matter of great importance to the outcome of the election due 16 days later. When later I asked Mr Wintringham if he had established a new doctrine with this initiative, his answer was perfect public service opacity: that was for people like me to debate.

I followed the briefing very keenly. In my view the public servants were careful not to go beyond their proper role of explaining technical and administrative matters. Barry Carbon, at that time only eight and a-half days into his new job at the head of the Ministry for the Environment — and a foreigner to boot — was not only exemplary in observing the boundaries of propriety but witty, informative and suitably disparaging of bureaucratic bumbling.

But this was a serious and highly political matter. It concerned an allegation in a one-sided book of a government cover-up of some genetically modified sweetcorn, sprung on the Prime Minister in a disgraceful ambush by a self-important television presenter I hope no one mistakes in the future for a journalist. Both National and Labour say their tracking polls recorded a drop of around 5% in Labour’s support on the day of the ambush (to 39% on Labour’s tracking polls and 38% on National’s). The incident may have cost Helen Clark the majority she was seeking.

It also may have cost the Greens some seats. The Greens’ alignment with the allegations — and the fact that one of the Greens’ list candidates was the book’s publisher — provoked Labour into a furious and sustained attack on the Greens that may have loosened votes.

That was the highly charged atmosphere in which Mr Wintringham paraded Mr Carbon and his colleagues.

Mr Wintringham conducted himself with his usual decorum. He was careful to stipulate the boundaries in advance to journalists and stayed through the whole briefing. But it was fraught with risk.

The risk came first in the form of the person who spoke before Mr Wintringham. That was Science Minister Pete Hodgson, who also stayed through the briefing. He was still visibly and audibly angry when he made his introductory remarks and in conversation afterwards. It takes little imagination to divine the tone and tenor of his request to officials to conduct their briefing.

Second, the risk was in what an uncritical public, unversed in the arcana of the relationship between ministers and chief executives, would make of Mr Carbon’s noble efforts. I heard many dismissive comments to the effect that the officials were just doing the politicians’ bidding and their word could not be taken seriously.

In my estimation Mr Wintringham did create new doctrine — or at the very least the precedent for a new doctrine — which politicians in future election tightspots will not hesitate to invoke. I think that making officials available as he did damaged the image of the public service as a body that is neutral as between parties. No other party in the election could parade officials in its cause as Mr Hodgson did that day.

Footnote in answer to a question: If the alleged cover-up had been two years before, that is, in the time of the National government, would the officials have been paraded before the media? No.

[A senior minister has confirmed privately that if the National party had asked for that, the ministers probably would have refused. The public servants may, however, have been able to respond to direct media requests for information.]