Lessons in public service ethics are praiseworthy – but why link them with the Beehive?

The teaching of public service ethics is admirable. Accordingly we approve the expansion and changes to the Australia and New Zealand School of Government which include a newly created chair in public service ethics and integrity at Victoria University of Wellington.

But it is called the New Zealand Prime Minister’s ANZSOG Chair in Public Sector Ethics and Integrity, a more problematic proposition. Besides being a gob-stopping mouthful, the association of ethics and integrity with politicians – no matter how Right Honourable an incumbent PM might be – is fraught.

Politicians such as Housing Minister Phil Twyford have made no secret of their contempt for some public servants. Questioning Treasury’s estimates around KiwiBuild in the Budget, he said he did not agree with the “questionable assumptions” used and:

“I just think some of these kids in Treasury are fresh out of university and they’re are completely disconnected from reality.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on this occasion did say her minister was wrong to call Treasury officials “kids” but she supported his publicly challenging their judgement that the Government’s Kiwibuild promises are too ambitious.

This raised questions about the proper relationship between Ministers and officials, rather than ethical issues. But let’s look at Health Minister David Clark.

Newshub has reported its possession of a voicemail and emails which suggest he tried to gag senior staff talking publicly about the state of embattled Middlemore Hospital.

According to Newshub, in one case he even “appeared” to promise a board member, who he’d sacked, another job if they shut up.

“I notice more and more getting reported that is really not helping at all, and I’m hopeful that there won’t be much more commentary,” Health Minister David Clark said in a voicemail to District Health Board chair Rabin Rabindran.

“My fear is that if you and I keep commenting, the story keeps ticking along. I’d rather not have distraction about who said what when.”

Fair to say, Clark denies this, saying he was “absolutely not” trying to stop board members from speaking out.

“There were a lot of conversations happening through the media and that meant there wasn’t clear communication about what was going on, and that’s unhelpful,” he told Newshub.

The voicemail was left on April 18th, two weeks after Clark sacked Rabindran. In the same voicemail, Clark offered him a new job.

“I would consider you for further appointments because I think that sends a message.”

National MP Jami-Lee Ross accused Clark of “dangling [a job] to gag [Rabindran] and silence him” about hospital building issues.  Again, Clark “absolutely rejects” the claim.

There has been no sign of prime ministerial concern about Clark’s actions, although they raise the whiff of bullying and – dare we suggest – ethical issues.

When the extent of tax-dodging foreign trusts being set up around the world was exposed by the Panama Papers a few years ago, Barack Obama promptly denounced international tax evasion. In NZ Andrew Little, following UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s lead, tabled his tax records in Parliament and said a Labour government would end foreigners setting up trusts here.

A commentator at Noted quoted Don Brash, a former Reserve Bank Governor and leader of National and Act, who said:

“If [New Zealand] were setting up a system that allows people to evade tax, that would be wrong.”

Brash said everyone has to pay their fair share of tax.

“I myself would never attempt to hide anything in a tax haven. There is an ethical question.”

But John Key, PM at the time, said he thought New Zealanders didn’t mind as long as the trusts behaviour was legal.

“Unless there’s something unlawful people have done I don’t think New Zealanders will have concerns. But in the end Inland Revenue are now going to have access to all the information, they can go through and look at all that. They can check that people have done things appropriately and legally.”

Commentator Graham Adams said Key was clearly out of his depth when matters turn to ethics and proposed:

“Just as he has a Chief Science Adviser in Professor Peter Gluckman, perhaps he should get himself a Chief Ethics Adviser to explain how something can be legal and also unethical.

Colmar Brunton has just released the results of its Public Sector Reputation Index for 2018. As part of the public sector reputation study, a representative sample of 2000 New Zealanders was asked to rate certain groups or institutions using the trust scale.

Those groups (with their scores in brackets) were: People they know (family and friends) — 82 per cent trust, 2 per cent distrust; the police — 68 per cent trust, 8 per cent distrust; most people (we’d call that the general public) — 53 per cent trust, 10 per cent distrust; Parliament — 27 per cent trust, 29 per cent distrust.

But 41 per cent say they “trust” the civil service and only 8 per cent say they “distrust” it.

So who needs greater instruction in ethics and integrity?

Perhaps yet another chair should be established at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Government – a chair focused on principles, values and behaviours in politics for MPs to build and sustain relationships of trust and confidence, so our elected representatives can better deliver on their reform agendas.

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