Of good public service and good ways to do it

The constitution — the rules governing who has power and how it is used — has been back in focus this month.

A plus was John Key’s speech at the official “launch” of the (two-year-old) “policy project”, a high-level programme to develop and test public service policy capability, skills, quality, collaboration (“collective ownership”) and leadership.

Key said he wanted free and frank advice from officials pointing out “risks and pitfalls” and “alternatives” and giving an “unvarnished view”, preferably written and thus nuanced.

He wanted advice to balance “needs of today” with “longer-term goals”. Officials needed to “be thinking about what priorities a future government may have”. (Climate change? Superannuation?)

And Key said his ministers must “listen carefully and with respect” and behave in a “professional way” towards public servants.

In fact, senior public servants have told me, some ministers have not been careful, respectful and professional. That has contributed to a culture in which too many officials serve what they think ministers want.

Key said officials “must understand the political context” but also not “second-guess the politics”.

But ministers have ramped up the politics with political advisers in their offices. These non-public-servants, for example, routinely vet Official Information Act (OIA) requests and offer “advice” on what officials should release. That flouts the act’s spirit, then Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem reported last December.

A positive sign is that officials preparing the second “action plan” for the international “open government partnership” will, after public submissions, address OIA reform, which in June they explicitly rejected.

Key infamously said in 2014 that the government sometimes held back information right up to the OIA deadline if that was in its interests. Dame Beverley said that contravened the act.

Put that beside Key’s bypass of correct channels to give Sky City inside running to build Auckland’s convention centre (with extended gaming machine permits), back in the news last week with a report that Television New Zealand — pressured to sell land for the centre — had not had to provide a business case for its now 39%-over-budget headquarters refurbishment.

Also back in the news last week was the Saudi slinter — a payoff to businessman Hmood Al Khalaf after he got angry at a ban on live sheep exports and the Gulf free trade deal coincidentally stalled. Saudi Arabia has still not signed off a permit for an abattoir that was part of the deal.

And recall that Warner Brothers got an employment law change before funding Sir Peter Jackson’s film spectaculars.

None is a good constitutional look.

Same in Parliament. Member’s bills are a way matters which ministers oppose or don’t prioritise can be brought to Parliament. Notable examples of substance have been civil unions, then same-sex marriage, and Simon Bridges’ animal welfare law (when a National backbencher), all passed. A petition on assisted dying now being discussed stems from such a bill.

But two National MPs’ recent bills seek to make it easier for airports to publicise disposal of lost property and to allow companies to email instead of posting annual reports to shareholders — which ministers could easily have put in the annual Statutes Revision Bill of minor amendments. Their spots on the agenda cut space for other parties’ MPs’ bills (though these are often political statements more than serious measures).

Labour chief whip Chris Hipkins has a stack of complaints about how Parliament is run, including truncated select committee times for public submissions and hearings, including of the highly contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership legislation. (Though hearings on Nick Smith’s controversial planning law changes have been extended.)

Hipkins grumps that the government now chairs almost all select committees and has put a majority on the regulations review committee which has the formal power to disallow cabinet-made regulations. Increasingly, new legislation gives the cabinet this power, thus bypassing Parliament. Stuart Nash is fuming at a bill devolving tax administration changes to the cabinet.

That is not what 1980s Prime Minister and parliamentary and constitutional reformer Sir Geoffrey Palmer thought proper. He has a book out soon wanting more formal constitutional law.

Don’t expect Key to rush into Sir Geoffrey’s arms. Key’s petulance in question time (in part responding to Labour MPs’ ranking of points-scoring above information-seeking) and his dismissive OIA comment show he is neither a parliamentarian in the true sense nor a constitutionalist.

So what? The constitution doesn’t excite voters. It is, after all, only about who gets power and how it is used.

• My shorthand reference last week to farmers being exempt from the climate change emissions trading scheme should have said their methane and nitrous oxide emissions — nearly half the national total — are exempt.