Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Public servants and politicians

Big News displays a certain ignorance when commenting on Nania Mahuta's "rebel submission" on the Foreshore & Seabed Bill:

If public servant Haami Piripi almost lost his job for doing the same thing, why then are public servants forced to be apolitical when Government MP's don’t even have to toe the party line?

Firstly, Piripi is not a public servant. Secondly, linking public servants and politicians in the above manner is simply a category error. The duty of public servants to be neutral and professionally serve the government of the day has nothing whatsoever to do with the activities of elected politicians. Big News might as well have asked why public servants are forced to be apolitical when there are opposition MP's in the House, and it would have made as much (or as little) sense. Thirdly, Nania Mahuta doesn't work for the government or for Helen Clark (despite what she may think), and is under no legal obligation to "toe the party line".

The role of politicians is to debate and decide policy. Nania Mahuta's submission is simply a part of that process. While it has been unusual recently for MPs to dissent so publicly from party positions, it was common under FPP, and it is something I'd like to see a lot more of.

By contrast, the role of public servants is to enact the policies of the government of the day. Because we want an experienced and professional public service, we also demand that they equally be able to serve future governments (the alternative is replacing much of the public service with every change of government). Hence public service neutrality.