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Bias in the public service

In brief

  • Head of Te Whatu Ora (Health NZ) Rob Campbell spoke out strongly and is gone, but there are many others with similar thinking in the public service.
  • Elected officials coming up against an ideologically mismatched public service makes it difficult to get things done.
  • Dr Oliver Hartwich of the NZ Initiative is calling for a ‘reboot’ of the public service.

Recent examples

Former head of Te Whatu Ora (Health NZ) Rob Campbell’s comments on social media are an example of recent instances that demonstrate the public service is too politicised. But, in our view, the bigger problem is not the speaking out but choosing a person with a strong affiliation in the first place. This just makes changing course much harder under that person and the organisation tends to attract birds of a feather over time. Indeed, if they speak out at least they are identifying themselves.

Some might say there are strongly right-leaning ideologues in the public service also. Firstly, that shouldn’t be allowed either. Secondly, who? All the recent examples discussed in the media include only left-wing Labour appointees.

In certain cases a person’s leaning may be particularly relevant to their position and that is particularly bad. This is like choosing your judge and then saying they are independent. This causes a loss of respect for the office. A very good example is Meng Foon, Race Relations Commissioner.

There are several incidents where Foon has sprung into action against allegations of racism directed towards non-whites. However, anti-white racism does not seem to be his thing. Recent examples include Foon’s reluctance to hold to account Te Pati Māori for their incredible claim on their official party website that Māori are genetically superior to non-Māori. Also, he’s failed to be critical of Tusiata Avia’s taxpayer funded poetry calling for violence against white people. Foon is also vocal in his support for constitutional changes favouring co governance.

ACT has criticised Foon’s one sided advocacy saying “the commissioner needs to be willing to stand up to all examples of racial discrimination, not just pick and choose issues depending on his ideology”.

The importance of a politically neutral public service 

The Public Service’s own documentation describes the importance of neutrality within the public service this way:  

Maintaining political neutrality helps to manage potential for conflict between the Public Service policy role and the government’s decision-making and advocacy role. 

In an RNZ interview, NZ’s former top doc, Sir Ashley Bloomfield, said that public officials must maintain neutrality in order to preserve trust and confidence in the public service.

Time for a “reboot”

According to an article by Dr Oliver Hartwich of the New Zealand initiative, the situation demands a “reboot”. This is to get rid of the ideologues that will impede any desired reforms of a particular government.

In some systems of government, for instance the USA, it is normal to change out the very senior civil servants whenever the government changes. That is not the practice in NZ but maybe it needs to be in these particularly polarised times.

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