Comment: The head of the public service disputes Newsroom columnist Peter Dunne’s view on the performance and neutrality of the leaders of health and police

Peter Dunne is an experienced and respected former Minister of the Crown. However, my perspective from the other side of the fence is a bit different to his.

The first and last responsibility of every public servant is to obey the law. That is the rule of law which underlies democratic government in New Zealand.

The Director-General of Health plays a pivotal role in a pandemic, providing the Government with public health advice and exercising special legislated powers.

Under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act 2020, the Minister can only make a Covid-19 order after having had regard to advice from the Director-General of Health about the risks of the outbreak or spread of Covid-19 and the nature and extent of measures that are appropriate to address those risks. That Act also gives the Director-General the power to make Covid-19 orders if particular conditions are met.

Under the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006, the Prime Minister may only issue an epidemic notice after considering the written recommendation of the Director-General of Health. An epidemic notice is a public policy tool to help government agencies respond swiftly and effectively in a rapidly evolving situation.

In exercising these powers, Dr Ashley Bloomfield is simply complying with the law and doing his job. The Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented. It’s one of the biggest challenges New Zealand has ever faced. The Director-General of Health has been front and centre of the Government’s response to the pandemic. This has meant Bloomfield has been in the media spotlight perhaps more than any other public servant in our history. He is doing a tough job without expecting any thanks. In my view, Bloomfield has done a commendable job. He has done his best to uphold the principle of political neutrality in uncertain times while helping to deliver the best possible health outcomes for New Zealanders.

But Dunne is right that there is a line. My view is that Bloomfield has done a good job of staying on the right side of that line. And all within the context of a highly volatile, rapidly changing pandemic and political environment.

As is our role, the Public Service Commission has been supporting him in that and we will continue to do so.

Read Peter Dunne’s column here

My experience regarding the tenure of chief executives is also different to Dunne’s. The bottom line for a chief executive is having the confidence of the minister. It is very rare that party politics enters into this. Most often, it is the ability of the chief executive for whatever reason to deliver the Government’s programme.

Sometimes there are relationship issues. Or communication issues. Or delivery issues. I know this because it is my job to work with chief executives, and ministers, to fix them. And we do. All the time.

Chief executives, for their part, are very aware that they need to make the relationship work. Ministers got elected by New Zealanders. Chief executives didn’t. That’s democracy.

Occasionally chief executives will step aside of their own accord if they can’t make things work. And that is the right thing to do.

In the whole of my time as Public Service Commissioner, across two governments, I have never had a conversation with a minister or Prime Minister about the political leanings of a chief executive. Or anything close to it. I don’t know what the politics of the chief executives are. We simply never discuss it.

I can’t comment on the situation of the Commissioner of Police because the role sits outside my jurisdiction. However, it would be a very big deal constitutionally for a Government to express no confidence in a statutory officer directly upon assuming office. It would be unprecedented in New Zealand.

New Zealand has a public service with a deserved, strong international reputation for its independence, effectiveness and integrity. Trust and confidence in the public service remains high. But Dunne raises an important issue: Trust. Trust cannot be taken for granted. We need to keep working hard to build and maintain it, because without public trust the public service loses its licence to operate.

And on that very important point we are in full agreement.

Peter Hughes is the Public Service Commissioner

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