10 Sep 2014

Pledge to protect public servants

7:40 pm on 10 September 2014

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie is promising to protect the right of any public servant to be politically active in their own time and wants to hear from anyone who feels that right has been trampled on.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie.

State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie. Photo: RNZ

Public servants have to remain politically neutral, but are allowed to engage in politics outside work. The author of Dirty Politics, Nicky Hager, has accused Mr Rennie of being hopeless at defending those rights, while union the Public Services Association says its members are scared of speaking out.

The book, released last month, is based on thousands of emails and Facebook messages revealing right-wing blogger Cameron Slater's conversations with National Party members.

A public servant has told Radio New Zealand News that when he was spotted on television in the background at a Hager event, his bosses told him to stay out of politics.

Mr Hager says that was dangerous. "Then we're basically leaving politics to (bloggers) Cameron Slater and David Farrar and the spin doctors and the industry voices and the BNZ economists, and politics starts to feel to the public like it's made up of those 20 or 30 familiar voices and no one else is involved."

Mr Hager believes blocking public servants from political discussion leaves the public in a weak position for holding politicians to account and the State Services Commissioner is doing nothing to combat it.

But speaking on Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme tonight, Iain Rennie said the public servant should never have been in any trouble for attending a public meeting about the book.

Mr Rennie said state servants have the rights, responsibilities and civil liberties of other New Zealanders and invited the person concerned to come forward.

"It would be wrong for a state servant to be told off for attending a book launch like this, and I'd like to invite that state servant to come forward to the commission and we're very happy to take up their concerns with agency concerned," he said.

PSA acting national secretary Glenn Barclay says behaviour public servants can and can not be involved is made clear in the State Services Code of Conduct, but the culture of various departments made workers shy away from taking a political stance.

"The majority [of its members] were saying their managers make decisions based on politics rather than evidence and that's a worrying response, members when they are feeling that way are more likely to react to what is being said or the culture within the workplace rather than being really familiar with the code of conduct."

Underhand tactics putting people off - Hager

Nicky Hager book launch at Unity Books. The book is called Dirty Politics.

Nicky Hager Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

Nicky Hager told about 300 people at last night's meeting that a central theme of his book was being played out, as underhand tactics were putting people off politics altogether.

The book suggested senior figures in the National government had been involved in undemocratic practices, yet it continued to poll well - something Mr Hager said was due to people being put off politics because they are sick of hearing about dirty tactics.

Radio New Zealand's analysis of the main political polls shows National is averaging just over 50 percent, with Labour on 25 percent and the Greens on 12 percent.

Those who did understand and care about politics were being gagged, he said.

"The academics and the scientists and the engineers and the school teachers, all those people who know about things in society, the ones who can talk about it and inform the other people who vote and think and act and sign petitions, lots of those people are scared at the moment, many academics think they are going to get in trouble if the speak out at the moment."

People in the audience questioned how ordinary New Zealanders could engage more with the political process.

Accountant Murray Parker said teaching civics in schools would encourage people from a young age to question the politicians who should be serving in the public interest.

"I think it is critical that everybody understands we all have a role to play, we can't all be Nicky Hager standing up in front of hundreds of people presenting that story but everybody has an opportunity to think about these issues, to consider what sort of country we want and take some sort of action, however small it is," he said.

Advertising copywriter Jim Francis was worried by the book's suggestion the media was being systematically manipulated and gagged by government.

"I was feeling powerless, I was looking at it and thinking, I can't do anything, I can't fight the media, I can't challenge them if they're presenting a false view, and that was making me feel a bit dispirited, and it was interesting that he said that that was one of the plans, to stop people voting."

Mr Hager said he never wrote his book to try to influence this election. Instead, he hoped New Zealanders started expecting better from their politicians and holding them to account.

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