Yes minister, says State Services Commissioner

Last updated 18:01 14/11/2007

Another day, another inquiry that blames officials.

Today we received two lengthy reports on the Madeleine Setchell affair. She's the partner of National Party chief press secretary Kevin Taylor, who was head-hunted to head the Environment Ministy's communications unit only to be sacked after its chief executive belatedly discovered her relationship withTaylor.

The ministry's chief executive, Hugh Logan, made this discovery not through his own staff, who were already aware of Setchell's position since she had disclosed it in her job interview, but through a senior advisor in the office of David Benson-Pope, who was Environment Minister at the time.

In Logan's conversation with Benson-Pope over this, he was advised in "robust'' language that she was not welcome in his office, according to the reports issued today.

Amazingly, however, State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble found that Hugh Logan was to blame for Setchell's unfair dismissal - not Benson-Pope. According to Prebble, it's OK for ministers to express a personal view about public servants to their chief executives, as long as said chief executives do not base their employment decisions upon them.

Given that these chief executives report to their ministers and must deal with them on a daily basis, this is a little difficult to swallow. As is the Government's claim today that the civil service has not been politicised under Labour given another revelation in the reports - Agriculture Minister Jim Anderton also made his feelings known about Setchell's proposed employment in his ministry.

That's right, just weeks after Setchell lost her job at the MoE because of who she was sleeping with, she was turned down for employment at the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Despite the acting comms manager recommending her for the post, the chief executive declined to employer her.

Interestingly, this followed a conversation with Anderton during which Anderton made it clear that while the decision was the chief executive's alone to make, were she to be employed Setchell "might be constantly vulnerable to suspicion and difficulties in her work'' because of her relationship with Taylor. 

Does Prebble hold Anderton to account for this? Nope. Such views were "within the normal range'' for a minister, and like Benson-Pope Anderton did not influence his chief executive, who made his own decision not to hire Setchell, Prebble found.

So what happens to the officials blamed instead? Hugh Logan has lost his performance bonus. Mark Prebble has docked himself 2.5% of his pay. The MAF chief executive received no censure. Anderton remains a minister. Benson-Pope is gone, but only because he misled the public about his role in the affair - not because of his intervention itself.  

As for Madeline Setchell, she lost her job and is now, it seems, persona non grata in at least parts of the public sector because of who she chooses as a partner.  As many speakers during a snap debate in Parliament this afternoon have noted, this is a slippery slope. New Zealand just isn't big enough to have the sort of politicised public service operated in countries such as the United States, where changes of governments lead to thousands of public servants losing their jobs.

As Prebble has pointed out today, conflicts of interest in the public service can and should be owned up to and managed appropriately. But it does appear that once again Labour ministers have left officials to dangle while overstepping the bounds of the traditionally neutral role played by the civil service. Yes, minister indeed.      

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