That one of the causes of the deteriorating quality of policy-making is of the politicians own making should come as no surprise – and it is confirmed by the latest survey of what New Zealand’s public servants think of their political masters. In short, the view is that policy is so compromised by political bias and prejudice as to render it increasingly ineffective in terms of serving the public interest. That’s right – policy best-practice is the victim of political regimes of the modern era having changed the rules to enable their political expediency to rule. One of its strongest manifestations is the role of political staff appointed in Ministers offices that run interference to prevent the public service doing its job. Secondly, Ministers are increasingly unwilling to take free and frank, politically neutral advice. That too was a resounding finding of the survey.
This of course is the reason we formed The Opportunities Party(TOP) to contest the 2017 election – to highlight to the thinking, progressive New Zealand voter that the barbarians are no longer at the gate, they’re well ensconced within the walls of Government. The consequence of course is that your tax dollars are increasingly being applied to furthering the privilege of particular sectors that the politicians owe their election to, rather than being applied to further the interest of the public at large. It is a gross violation of the tradition and purpose of our constitution, wherein the public interest must be the first and foremost consideration of all advice to Ministers.
While the senior public servants interviewed in this latest edition of the survey acknowledged there’s a role for political advisers that the establishment parties bring with them to Wellington, it is their greater role in preventing Ministers having to publicly confront best-practice policy which is the problem. The role of the public service of course is to provide, independent advice to the politicians charged with Ministerial responsibilities. Yes, many Ministers simply do not have the competence to evaluate advice themselves and so their partisan aides serve a purpose – absolutely. But if the politicians are able to insulate themselves from the independent, objective advice that the public service is duty-bound to provide, by having their partisan political courtiers screen it out when it runs counter to their political prejudice, then of course the public interest is compromised and the public service’s efforts to ensure best-practice, simply sterilised.
It’s not just the interviewees from the survey who are nervous about the effect the growth in influence of political advisers has had. The Chief Ombudsman has also expressed concern about the lack of transparency nowadays in the relationship between the Ministers and the public service.
One of the latest examples of this contamination of the public service ethos is the decision by PM Jacinda Ardern to define the terms of reference of her misnamed Tax Working Group to exclude tax reforms that address the deep-seated loopholes in our income tax regime that protect property owners at the expense of salary and wage earners. As if this isn’t sufficient to reduce the work of that committee to little more than a political pantomime, her government then appoints a former politician of her own party as its chair rather than an expert in public taxation policy. There is absolutely no chance that this committee then can deliver independent, objective advice to the government that treats as paramount the public interest. Labour’s political mafia have crippled the exercise from the start rendering it to be no more than a farce, a weak attempt to legitimise intellectually and academically the government’s own prejudice and sector bias when it comes to design of the tax system. Unlike with the previous Tax Working Groups that were independent and did have integrity, which led to the politicians having to publicly and transparently reject or accept their recommendations – the Ardern Tax Farce will be sterilised before it even assembles.
Under our Public Service Act, public servants in New Zealand are bound to provide politically independent advice to Ministers. Such transparency forces Ministers into the sunlight to make their decisions – where their partisan interests clash with the public interest it’s there for all to see. They rightfully live or die according to the public’s knowledge of the decisions they have made. As the State Service Commission has said “free and frank” advice is central to constitutional government.
But Ministers’ political advisers are not bound by such a standard and the growth in their influence therefore – under both National and Labour governments – is one of the strongest indicators of the decline in democracy in New Zealand.
A critical element of the Democracy Reset policy that TOP promoted during the election campaign was to return sovereignty to parliament, protect it by re-instigating a Constitutional Authority, and in effect ensure that the executive branch of government (the Cabinet) loses the unbridled power that successive cabinets have granted themselves over recent decades. Under this reform it would not be possible for Ministers, through their political advisers, to kneecap the ability of the public service to provide free, frank, objective advice that holds as paramount the public interest. And, it certainly wouldn’t be possible for Ministers to reject it without the public knowing.
Labour has shown very quickly that it has no interest in such an ethical bottom line. It’s just the same-old, same-old Establishment party politics that has proved the norm since the tyranny of Robert Muldoon set the precedent.