Pat Baskett: Election-time rules for state servants mildly threatening

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I'm glad I'm not a state servant - at least, at election time. Keeping the job out of politics and politics out of the job is one thing. The list of dos and don'ts in "General Election 2008: Guidance for State Servants" is quite another. Its mildly threatening tone would have me watching my back.

I have no quibble with the requirement that people in government departments and ministries maintain a level of political neutrality regardless of who is in power.

That is the measure of their professionalism.

But the detail of this document is extraordinary. It goes beyond reasonable protection of state employees from political pressure or abuse and fails to discriminate between professional and private domains.

State servants are exhorted to consider carefully when and how they express their political views, not only at work but outside work hours as well. Those in leadership roles are particularly cautioned.

The more senior your position, the more important it is for you to be vigilant ... no delivering flyers, no party bumper sticker on your car, let alone allowing a hoarding to be erected on your property.

And you must avoid being photographed in a political situation.

Should you have the misfortune to receive a party-political email at work, don't even think about acknowledging it or even forwarding it to your home address. Delete it forthwith, or tell your manager. Mere reception of an email, or a fax, "is likely to be perceived as undermining that agency's impartiality". Paranoia, perhaps?

You may act as a scrutineer on polling day but wearing a party rosette is forbidden, as is wearing anything at work that would identify your political inclinations.

Once the election is over and won or lost, you may feel like celebrating, or commiserating. But no! Attending a candidate's post-election party is considered to compromise your impartiality and to risk attracting the media. Really?

Democracies thrive on criticism and comment or so we believe. Yet the public service is presented as somehow vulnerable, or perhaps inviolate.

Its employees are assured they have the same right to free speech as other citizens. But they are told to avoid expounding a party line or expressing views that could be considered critical of their job, in conversations with colleagues or friends.

Judgments are being made here that, in my view, say nothing about a worker's professionalism other than offering a huge vote of no confidence.

How many of New Zealand's state servants who incline towards the right of the political spectrum have performed their duties perfectly well under a left-wing government, and vice versa?

State servants can, in fact, "belong to and play an active role in a political party ... "

Should they take this bold step, and one wonders what "active means", they have to advise their manager or chief executive as soon as possible so that potential conflict can be managed.

Neither is the possibility of state servants standing for election ruled out. The requirement that they take leave until after polling day seems reasonable.

The consequences of being unsuccessful, however, although not spelled out, have a peculiarly ominous ring.

Potential candidates are advised to "consider carefully the consequences of standing for Parliament and being unsuccessful."

Circumstances may arise, they are warned, where it is appropriate for an employer to assign them different duties when they return to work after an unsuccessful campaign. One might ask whether different in this context implies demotion.

Since the guidelines are addressed to "state servants", it is useful to examine the term and its relationship to the older term "public servants".

Public service departments are part of the "state services", and the latter, says a Cabinet manual, "is the term used to refer to the broad range of organisations that serve as instruments of the Crown".

Including school boards of trustees, the police, security and intelligence, the defence force.

Another term - the state sector - is broader. It encompasses organisations whose financial position and performance are reported annually to the government and it includes state-owned enterprises and tertiary education institutions.

Part of the professionalism of university lecturers and professors, I grew up to believe, was to question all aspects of society - even at election time. And yet they, too, will have to watch their backs.

National leader John Key, addressing the Public Service Association's annual congress on September 30, promised to uphold a greater degree of political neutrality in the public service.

His comments appear to be a follow-on from those of National's health spokesperson Tony Ryall when he warned the Auckland District Health Board not to proactively generate positive news coverage to benefit the Labour Government during the run-up to the election.

National, said Key, would make sure departments did not become cheerleaders for policies with a strong political component.

Being a State servant, the guidelines admit, "is not always straightforward".

Yeah, right.

* Pat Baskett is an Auckland journalist.

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