Trading away our political rights for the chance to serve the public

Over the last few weeks I’ve been considering returning to blogging; I seem to have the energy to do it again, and it can be just plain fun.

A couple of times I’ve been sitting in a bus or cafe with a post half written in my head and remembered the lanyard around my neck or in my handbag. You see, like many of my fellow Wellingtonians I seem to have traded away my rights to political speech. That lanyard has two cards on it, each representing a whole area of news and policy I can’t safely post about.

Worse than that I have to consider whether being politically outspoken on other issues might prevent another organisation giving me an access card in the future. Can I, should I, risk my employment, my mortgage, my home, potentially the financial welfare of colleagues, to speak out politically? I know people who have lost contracts, on-going work, livelihoods even because of their public political speech.

Cameron Slater’s recent antics have only heightened that sense, people I have worked alongside are worried – what would the consequence of them being named as a Labour Party donor be? Would their employer be willing to leave their name on a document going to the Minister? If not, what happens to their career? What happens when their contract next comes up for renewal?

The interesting thing is that when, in the past, I’ve had private sector clients the pressure was never so great. Sure when working at Fonterra I would have been foolish to post accusations of deliberate environmental contamination, but I could happily have posted about the price of milk, and the effects of freight on roads rather than rail. Meat and Wool never seemed particularly worried I’m vegetarian.

Why is it that our public servants, often people who take their jobs out of a genuine belief they can make things better, are so confined in their political activities? And how can we change it, particularly as public servants speaking out against those constraints are probably putting themselves at risk?

In the interests of some disclosure… I am not a public servant, I am a private sector employee who frequently works within Public Service organisations. I have not intention of listing which organisations at which time, or which topics I’m not posting on – that way lies chaos.

6 thoughts on “Trading away our political rights for the chance to serve the public

  1. I’d love to read your blogging again, Anita, but I understand, very much, the pressures that can be brought to bear on public servants who may have political opinions. I wanted to join the march in support of the bill removing section 59, but I was given very clear instructions that I was to do no such thing, even though the area I worked in was completely different. I found that very frustrating.

  2. Yeah, somehow much of the national office of the Department I was working in at the time gained the impression that we were not able to join the hikoi over the seabed and foreshore. I seem to remember standing along the route to watch, while wearing black, and joining the waiata may have been considered acceptable :)

    My impression is that the interpretation of what is acceptable under the code of conduct is narrower now than it was three years ago. No changes, no new memos from SSC, just a heightened climate of anxiety.

  3. My intention was not to name donors and members, rather to get the Labour party to realise that they had majorly let the side down.

    I have not published the donors. I may still if Labour continues the fantasy that they were hacked and they are not at fault.

    I will not however publish full names as I believe it is every citizens right to belong to which ever party they wish.

    The interesting side of all this however is the absolute fear shown by Labour at having their donors and supporters known.

    This is the same fear that Helen Clark and much of the current crop of labour politicians tried to instill in the general public with their attacks on donors and supporters of the National party.

    Their denigration of the Exclusive Brethren was particularly distasteful.

    A strong democracy needs political parties to be strong and members to be confident about their party. Labour let the team down.

    As a personal note I watched your debate last night on The Standard and would like to thank you for your support with regards to my well known and never hidden mental health issues, which labour and folk there have constantly used to attack me. I appreciate it, knowing that there are actually people on all sides of the political spectrum who do “get it”…helps. Thank you

  4. Whaleoil writes:

    I will not however publish full names as I believe it is every citizens right to belong to which ever party they wish.

    and to go about their lives without being bullied for their political beliefs.

    Their denigration of the Exclusive Brethren was particularly distasteful.

    Yeah, that was pretty unpleasant – there were plenty of reasonable criticisms of the EB’s conduct in their engagement with National, but going around saying “ew they’re weirdos” was not fair.

    Disclosure: I have Exclusive Brethren in my extended family, sadly they don’t talk to their non-EB relatives. I’ve never been sure if that makes me more or less sympathetic, probably a little better informed tho :)

    I appreciate it, knowing that there are actually people on all sides of the political spectrum who do “get it”…helps.

    Yes, it does :)

    For all that I think unkind thoughts about almost every political action you ever take, I have a lot of respect for you being out about your illness, it’s not easy and it does provide a target for people with no scruples.

  5. Welcome back Anita, and by all means please continue blogging within the limits you describe. Your are an important voice that needs to be heard.

    Whale: I appreciate your civilised and reasonable comment. TBH it seems downright out of character, but it also demonstrates the ideological differences do not have to lead to personal invective regardless of the passions involved.

  6. Hi Anita – stepping back from the latest foible, what you are raising is an issue that a number of public servants have been discussing for a number of years. The issue is not party specific, the Setchell saga was only a very public instance of a series of events that raises a debate amongst colleagues about the seperation between public servants and politicans. It will always be tempting for any politican caught on the hop to throw an offical under the bus. This also happens in the corporate world. Hence the saying “S%&t flows downhill”.

    To some extent this is because modern political debate is about “quality of governance” rather than ideas. You could link this discussion to the discussion by Lew on Democratic fundamentalism via the work of Fukuyama on first the success of liberal democracy (certainly for western societies) and his recent work the origins of political order. This is a long way to say in the absence of a better idea, democracy and the market economy (because the economic debate is only between neo-keynesians and hayekians where both are possibly right at the same time) are the prevailing ideas and political parties will fight to show they are better at governance than the other.

    Hence governance is political and their will be strong temptations for all politicans when caught out on governance to throw someone under the bus.

    For public servants that means focussing on ensuring professional integrity, ability to provide free and frank without fear or favour and good public sector leaders who will protect their staff from weak ministers. Hence the appointment of CE’s by the SSC is a good thing, providing a degree of seperation.

    For political parties the challenge is being the best managers, this does not mean ‘career’ politicians but people with management/relationship skills. That maybe an explanation for the succees of Mr Key. He matches the management skills of Ms Clark but has stronger relationship skills (certainly with the public). Whilst Dr Cullen and Bill English are strong managers they did/do not have the same strength in relationship skills as there leaders do.

    I think you can blog/comment as a public servant just you need to make sure of your professional integrity – so no name calling etc. Because that effects the perception of professional judgement. And the quality of your professional judgement will be one of the strongist protections for an offical. I’ve known advisors initially seen by parties as ‘compromised’ but because of the quality of their advice generally good ministers have been happy to receive good advice (probably because they get so much free bad advice) and the view of “compromised” quickly displaced.

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