The public's servants or the politicians'?

Who said this and when: “Unless there is planning now for a good environment, economic progress will be hindered”.
Answer: the physical environment committee of the National Development Conference, (NDC) in April 1969.

Some things haven’t changed much in the 40 years this coming week since I first reported on politics — for the Dominion as it then was.

Chunks of the speech opening Parliament that week could have been inserted into this year’s with little change — for example, our distance from markets and the importance of agriculture. John Key this week: “Farming has always been, and will continue to be, vital to New Zealand’s prosperity.” Kiwi Keith Holyoake, running for a fourth term in 1969, was bothered by Europe subsidising dairy exports — Europe is back at that dirty game.

In May 1969 the United States was moving to exit a war-to-save-the-world which had instead mired and mauled the United States: Vietnam then, Iraq now.

There was bold talk of economic expansion. The NDC had set a 10-year target of 4.5 per cent a year growth but had worried that it “will not be reached unless there is a decisive and immediate change in attitudes”. Such a change is the message Bill English wants us to get from his black budget on May 28.

The 1969 Parliament opening speech highlighted an intention to “deal energetically with those matters which impede the progress of the Maori people” — though then, as now, National and Maori invested common words with different meanings.

Of course, things have also changed. The “Gay night at Wainuiomata” headline above a picture of two partying women in 1969 would convey a very different message today. Unemployment was thought high at 0.8 per cent.

And when a reporter wandered swipe-card-free into a minister’s office there was only a (male) private secretary, a (female) typist and a minister. An exception was Finance Minister Rob Muldoon who had a Treasury officer, Kees Westrate, to do the numbers.

Now a minister’s office is stuffed with department-seconded advisers, personal advisers, communications staff and others dedicated to the political cause — and, a resurrected 1993 aberration, a “purchase adviser” added to departmental staff at the minister’s behest.

Such appointments sit uneasily with the 1988 State Sector Act. They compound Helen Clark’s governments’ blurring of the boundary between politics and public service. Surprisingly, public service bosses have acquiesced.

The problem arises because ministers’ personal appointees in their offices are treated as quasi-public servants. That is at odds with the strict separation of duties first legislated in 1912 and repeatedly endorsed since, including in Holyoake’s time.

Public servants are required to be strictly non-party-political in performing their duties. Ministers in turn cannot hire and fire them. That is the preserve of the chief executive. Moreover, chief executives are selected by a process run by the public service. The cabinet may reject a nominee but not select or suggest an alternative.

National itself got into a palaver in 2007 about ministerial transgressions over Ministry for the Environment staff but nevertheless this year briefly acted as if it could, in effect, fire Corrections boss Barry Matthews.

Now it tells departments to hire people answerable only to ministers.

Governments are progressively fudging the 1912 principles, the point of which was to ensure that ministers could not do favours for relatives, friends and accomplices and to create a cadre of professionals whose interest was, as far as practicable, the public interest.

Public servants must, of course, give effect to ministers’ translations of their party’s preferences and the electorate’s wishes. That is the democratic imperative. Ministers ultimately take decisions and carry the can (though Labour ministers did at times shamelessly blame the servants).

But public servants, especially senior ones, pre-date politicians’ arrival in office and post-date their departures. They are expected to take a long view and national (small-n) perspective of national challenges and opportunities and policy options. They are the public’s servants as well as the politicians’.

This sets up what should be a constructive tension. Ministers don’t always see it that way. They have responded by appointing personal advisers. Some also dump friends and accomplices on the myriad boards running state agencies and companies.

In 1969 boards were used the same way, though there were far fewer. But mandarins ran the public service and ministers’ offices were sparse. There was always unofficial advice but now it has been expanded into a large, taxpayer-funded, in-house enterprise.

To preserve the 1912 principles it is long past time to reconstitute ministers’ offices as distinct entities, with staff administered by a new, dedicated authority, so there is no confusing personal appointees with public servants. Holyoake would have understood. English has yet to.