Now that the election date, September 20, has been announced, it is critical that state sector employers understand that their employees, "public servants", are New Zealand citizens and as such are entitled to democratic and political rights like any other.

TVNZ boss Kevin Kenrick's suggestion to a parliamentary committee last week that staff declare their political allegiances was a dangerous overreaction to an unusual event. It was pleasing to see State Services commissioner Iain Rennie release such a strong statement criticising the plan.

The resignation of Shane Taurima from TVNZ, and the accompanying public controversy, could have a chilling effect on the rights of public servants to engage in political life. We were glad to work alongside the State Services Commission in developing a set of clear guidelines for state servants ahead of the 2014 election. While the commission's video that accompanied the guidelines provoked amusement among many, it also raised serious issues that all state servants and their employers should be aware of.

Like all New Zealanders, public servants have the right to join a political party, to volunteer their personal time in support of election campaigns and to receive information from their union about the election. State servants have the right to stand for election, and to endorse a political party on their personal social media pages.

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These rights, however, come attached to a responsibility - they should not interfere with their jobs.

New Zealanders have repeatedly made clear their trust for those working in the public service. In the 2013 Reader's Digest Most Trusted Professions list, six of the 10 most trusted jobs are on the Government payroll. Likewise, the 2013 Transparency International rankings once again listed New Zealand as having the world's least corrupt public service, tied with Denmark.

The Public Service Association is New Zealand's largest union. Last year, we worked with the Victoria University School of Management to survey our membership, with more than 16,000 union members responding to discuss how they experience their work, and what motivates them.

The results should make all New Zealanders proud: when asked, most members said they like their job, are highly motivated and, almost without exception, put in their best effort "regardless of the difficulties". What drives this motivation? For an overwhelming more than 90 per cent of members, it's a desire to make a positive difference to society.

Despite seemingly endless restructuring at many ministries and Government departments, despite redundancies and attempted wage freezes, the ethos of public service for the good of our society is still just as strong in our state sector. Given that, it is not surprising that many state servants would want to be active in the election campaign, whether through their union or as part of a political party.

Public servants can feel confident in their right to engage in politics outside work hours. The overreaction from TVNZ has been firmly stated by Commissioner Rennie to have been "a crude and heavy-handed response", and he has put on the record that it is not appropriate for state sector employers to "monitor or keep a register of their staff's political views or affiliations".

New Zealanders have repeatedly shown trust in those who work in the state sector, and they can rest easy knowing that trust will continue to be earned. State servants, in the work they do to support the rest of our society, also ensure that their own civil rights will be equally protected, and for that we can be grateful.

Richard Wagstaff is national secretary of the Public Service Association, New Zealand's largest union, representing over 58,000 members working across the wider state sector.

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