The change of government has already taken a toll: NZ on Air board member Andrew Shaw resigned for taking Winston Peters to task on Linkedin over Peters’ comments on the media and the Public Interest Journalism Fund.
Shaw had said Peters was inaccurate, described him as “malicious” - “His return is the worst of this gang of thugs.”
There’s a fair bit of bad blood between some ministers in the new National-Act-NZ First Government and a range of other public servants, diplomats and political appointees to public bodies.
However, any ministers who have a hankering to ditch someone could come up against the past words of Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, who said in March this year:
“In New Zealand we want to have an impartial public service. It’s really important. We don’t believe in an American, politicised public service where we make appointments each time under each successive government.”
Ministers do not hire or fire government department CEOs. That is in the hands of the Public Service Commission.
However, some are appointed on the recommendation of the Prime Minister or a Minister – such as diplomats, the Commissioner of Police and Chief of Defence Force.
There are laws and provisions that protect public servants from being hired and fired at the whim of a minister or government. Public servants are required to be apolitical and implement the policies and priorities of the government of the day, whoever it is. There are grounds for sacking, but those grounds tend to be for incompetence or bad performance.
However, political appointments made by ministers are a different matter.
The same neutrality is expected of all public appointments - as evidenced by cases such as Shaw and former Te Whatu Ora chair Rob Campbell, who was fired for criticising the National Party.
Those considered to be under the microscope of the new Government:
Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr
Orr began his second five-year term as Reserve Bank Governor in March this year.
At the time Orr’s reappointment was announced last November, Nicola Willis – now the Finance Minister – made it clear National was opposed to it, saying she wrote to Finance Minister Grant Robertson ahead of the decision to advise him of that. She also called for the bank’s performance to be reviewed independently.
However, that does not mean Willis will now move to replace Orr. She has repeatedly emphasised the need to protect the bank’s independence – however, she has left hanging a “but”. That is in the form of National’s intention to conduct that independent review of the bank’s performance, especially its response during Covid-19. If that finds Orr wanting in terms of performance, things could get interesting.
There will be change afoot: in its first 100 days, the coalition government intends to return the bank to solely focusing on inflation bands in its decisions, rather than taking into account wider social factors such as employment.
The Governor is appointed by the government, which consults with the Opposition, on the recommendation of the Reserve Bank board. The board had unanimously approved Orr for his second term.
Police Commissioner Andrew Coster
The situation between Police Minister Mark Mitchell and Police Commissioner Andrew Coster has the potential to turn into a standoff.
For three days running, Mitchell has refused to say whether he has confidence in Coster continuing as the Police Commissioner until his term ends in 2025.
It is widely believed Mitchell’s preference for the role is Richard Chambers, the current Assistant Commissioner.
Mitchell and Coster have butted heads in the past, In Opposition, Mitchell was critical of Coster’s leadership of the Police, in part blaming Coster for the increase in gang violence and other crimes.
He once dismissed Coster’s policing by consent approach as “cups of tea with the gangs”.
However, Coster is protected by constabulary independence under the Police Act - which means ministers cannot get involved in Coster’s operational decision-making.
It has the potential to result in quite a standoff. Coster is said to be more resilient that people might think and “stubborn” on constabulary independence. Many expect him to hold his ground against Mitchell, rather than make it easy for him by taking the hint.
Coster himself has made that clear. After the minister wouldn’t express confidence, Coster did it for him, telling the NZ Herald after his first meeting with Mitchell on Tuesday that he was confident he did have Mitchell’s confidence. The next morning on Newstalk ZB, Mitchell said he had confidence that Coster had integrity and was intelligent and competent – but once again refused to say if Coster had his confidence in the role as Commissioner.
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has also refused to say if Coster is safe, saying that was a call for Mitchell to make. The Governor General appoints the Police Commissioner on the recommendation of the Prime Minister. It’s up to the Prime Minister to decide how much sway his Police Minister should have.
Steve Maharey: Chair of Pharmac, chair of ACC and Member of the FPIM (finance, procurement and Information Management) Governance Group, Ministry of Health. A former minister in Helen Clark’s Labour Government.
At the time Rob Campbell was dismissed as Health NZ chair for airing political views on social media, Maharey offered to resign as Pharmac and ACC board chair for newspaper columns which criticised the National Party.
His resignation was not accepted and Maharey stopped his columns.
At the time, Luxon said Maharey “absolutely” should have resigned, emphasising the importance of an impartial public service.
Act leader David Seymour is set to be associate minister of health in charge of Pharmac. Seymour said this week he was reserving judgement on both Maharey and Pharmac’s under-fire CEO Sarah Fitt, who has had to apologise for communications about journalist Rachel Smalley.
However, Seymour did say it was clear that a culture change was needed at Pharmac.
The diplomats - Trevor Mallard (Ambassador in Ireland), Phil Goff (High Commissioner to London):
Of the two, Mallard is most at risk of being recalled from Dublin to Wainuiomata. When commenting on Maharey, Luxon had pointed to Goff as an example of someone who had not voiced political opinions while in a public role.
Mallard took up the post as Ambassador to Ireland in February, and one of those who objected was Winston Peters – who is now Mallard’s boss as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The appointment was around the same time Peters was challenging Mallard’s decision as Speaker to charge Peters with trespass for attending the Parliament protests. Mallard had withdrawn the trespass notices, but Peters pursued it and got a formal apology lodged with the court from the Speaker (albeit it from Mallard’s successor, Adrian Rurawhe).
Peters may wish to seek utu.
At the time, Peters also said Mallard lacked the diplomatic judgement to be an ambassador.
“Mr Mallard has never demonstrated any understanding of the most fundamental elements of diplomacy itself, and it’s important.”
Chris Bishop was also a critic of Mallard and Luxon aired a similar concern about whether Mallard had the diplomacy skills to do well for New Zealand: “I wouldn’t have thought diplomacy was his strong suit… But we’ll have to see how he goes. All I’d say is good luck to the Irish.”
Mallard could have redeemed himself on the diplomacy front since then and has not made any personal political statements.
Peters has long been a critic of political appointments as diplomats, with exceptions such as Dame Annette King as the High Commissioner in Australia.
At the time of Mallard’s appointment, Peters said former politicians should not get the jobs over trained diplomats. “Only in an exceptional exception should someone be a politician and get the job,” he said.
“I’m not against it utterly, but I’m against this abuse where it’s ‘jobs for the boys’, ‘jobs for the girls’ - so to speak - over plain, professional, experienced people.”
Other public servants and former politicians on boards
Paul Hunt - Human Rights Commission - Act leader David Seymour has repeatedly called for Hunt to be sacked and the HRC to be dismantled, describing it as a “hard-left organisation masquerading as a government department”.
Former National Party minister Don McKinnon - Defence Strategic Review: McKinnon told Newstalk ZB that he would offer his resignation letter to Defence Minister Judith Collins, and believed all political appointees should do the same when there was a change of Government. It is not yet known whether Collins accepted it – but it would be a surprise.
Former NZ First MP Tracey Martin - boards of Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and chair NZ Qualifications Authority. Martin abandoned her links and membership of NZ First after the 2020 election. She told the NZ Herald she did not agree with McKinnon’s view former politicians should offer to resign, saying in most cases they were appointed by ministers and a new minister could just as easily tell them their time was up.
Patrick Reynolds – Waka Kotahi NZTA board. In 2019, Reynolds tweeted Peters would soon retire “and his personality-based party with him”. The tweet was deleted, but Peters did not take it well, saying “My message to him would be that’ll be your last outing with your mouth, get on with your job and if we ever hear from you again, we’ll have a new board member on.” Four years have passed and he’s still on the board.
Rod Carr - Climate Change Commission. Both Act and National have been critical of some of the Commission’s work and advice – and the scope of its role. Act’s desire to scrap it did not make it into the coalition agreements.
Former Labour MPs: while there has been no controversy around them, other former Labour MPs appointed to boards include Maryan Street (KiwiRail), Harry Duynhoven (Civil Aviation Authority), and Marian Hobbs (Heritage NZ).