State servant political register 'not appropriate'

IAIN RENNIE: State Services Commissioner.
IAIN RENNIE: State Services Commissioner.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie has voiced concerns about a possible "register of political affiliations for state servants".

Rennie's comments follow a select committee hearing yesterday where TVNZ bosses said they might consider requiring staff to formally declare any political allegiances or political party membership, subject to the findings of TVNZ's current inquiry.

"It would not be appropriate for any organisation in the State Services to monitor or keep a register of their staff's political views or affiliations," Rennie said.

TVNZ chief executive Kevin Kenrick said yesterday the state broadcaster probably needed to be "more robust" in identifying political allegiances. This applied particularly in news and current affairs after the recent Shane Taurima debacle.

He said he did not want to censor or dictate staff's political preferences.

"But what we need to have is more robust declaration and awareness of that, and then we probably will need to look at how we can manage a situation where we are aware of that," Kenrick said.

TVNZ does not require disclosure of party memberships now.

But employment experts advised against such a move and Prime Minister John Key said it was unnecessary.

Kenrick said he had a low appetite for again hiring someone who had shown their political allegiances.

He indicated that former presenter Tamati Coffey, who is seeking the nod for Labour in Rotorua, would not be taken back.

Employment lawyer Susan Hornsby-Geluk warned such a move by TVNZ would be risky.

Political views were one of the prohibited grounds for discrimination under the Human Rights Act. She would never suggest asking such a question prior to hiring.

"If you don't hire them you run a strong risk they will say that was the reason," Hornsby-Geluk said.

"The only exception would be if being of a particular political persuasion was a genuine requirement of the job."

Last year Taurima unsuccessfully sought Labour's nomination in the Ikaroa Rawhiti by-election. He was afterwards taken back on staff by TVNZ as head of its Maori and Pacific programming unit after it sought assurances he had chosen journalism over politics.

However, last month he quit after it was revealed he had hosted a hui advising Labour on how to win the Maori vote and attended a Labour Tamaki Makaurau branch meeting on TVNZ premises. He was eyeing standing as a candidate in the electorate.

He has denied any bias in his work.

Rennie said in a statement that about 165,000 state servants in a wide range of roles all around the country, including TVNZ employees, were subject to the State Services code of conduct.

It requires staff to be politically neutral at work and to not allow their personal interests or relationships to affect their professional responsibilities.

In their private lives, state servants generally had the same rights as any other citizen when it came to their personal political opinions and affiliations. This included the right to hold political views and the right to freedom of association, Rennie said.

"All state servants must balance their professional roles and responsibilities with their private views and keep their job out of their politics and their politics out of their job," he said.

They had to ensure their actions were not affected by personal interests or relationships at any time. Any personal interests or relationships that had the potential to cause a conflict of interest must be actively managed.

SSC's guidance on the code acknowledges that political involvement could, in some circumstances, be seen as a conflict of interest that would need to be managed, depending on the functions, responsibilities and seniority of the role.

It states: "Although political affiliations are similar to other interests requiring management to avoid conflict, it is not appropriate for organisations to maintain any register of such affiliations."

"Any state servant who feels they may have an actual or potential conflict of interest should discuss this with their manager as soon as they become aware of it," Rennie said.

SSC recently issued guidance on the 2014 election, reminding all state servants of the need to remain politically neutral in their professional roles.