8 Mar 2023

Former Labour MP Ruth Dyson caught up in political neutrality crackdown

12:44 pm on 8 March 2023
Labour MP Ruth Dyson on the Governance and Administration Select Committee.

Ruth Dyson. File photo Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Former Labour minister Ruth Dyson has admitted she has not read the code of conduct governing her position as a Crown entity board member.

The revelation comes after fresh attention on Dyson's tweets promoting Labour and attacking the National Party despite a requirement she remain politically neutral.

Dyson, the deputy chair of the Earthquake Commission and Fire and Emergency New Zealand, is the third figure to become embroiled in a fiasco which has so far cost Rob Campbell his job as chair of Te Whatu Ora - Health New Zealand and the Environmental Protection Authority and put Pharmac chair Steve Maharey on notice.

Appearing before a Parliamentary select committee in her FENZ role on Wednesday morning, Dyson said she had been rethinking her social media conduct since Campbell's sacking.

"I'm prepared to review all my social media engagement and reflect on whether it meets the standard. I haven't done that yet," Dyson said.

"I would do nothing to damage the integrity of Fire and Emergency New Zealand. It's an organisation that I care about very deeply, and I'm committed to supporting and working hard for it."

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Dyson admitted she had not read the code of conduct which required her to be politically neutral.

"I didn't think of it," Dyson said.

"The induction days are pretty rigorous for a board. There's a lot you get told. [The code of conduct] is not a big part of it."

Asked whether she should have reviewed her social media use before taking on her board roles, Dyson said that was a good suggestion but "hard to do retrospectively".

National's public service spokesperson Simeon Brown pointed out that Dyson's Twitter biography stated that she was "still Labour" and asked whether that was in line with standards.

Dyson said that description, in her view, was "absolutely appropriate".

"That does not affect my ability to be politically neutral when engaged in board activities."

A screenshot of a tweet by former Labour MP Ruth Dyson in February about National Party leader Christopher Luxon's speech at Waitangi this year.

A screenshot of a tweet by former Labour MP Ruth Dyson in February about National Party leader Christopher Luxon's speech at Waitangi this year. Photo: Screenshot

In a tweet last month, Dyson criticised National leader Christopher Luxon's address at Waitangi, saying: "Oh no. It sounds like some cruel junior staffer gave Mr Luxon the wrong speech!"

Public servants and government-appointed board chairs are required to be politically impartial under a code of conduct set by the Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes.

Campbell was dismissed from his roles after he posted criticism of Luxon and his policies and later doubled down in the media.

Maharey writes a regular column for Stuff, some of which has been politically charged. He approached the Prime Minister's office for advice after Campbell's firing and ministers are considering advice about his statements.

Public Service Commissioner to contact all board chairs

In a separate appearance earlier on Wednesday morning, Hughes told MPs he would soon contact all Crown entity board chairs and reiterate the impartiality requirements, after a request from Public Service Minister Andrew Little.

Hughes said the recent examples of Campbell, Maharey - and now Dyson - were all subject to the code of conduct and new requirements under the Public Service Act.

"Minister Little wrote to me yesterday and has asked me to contact all board chairs and just reiterate those requirements and I will do that promptly, but I'm very confident the vast majority of New Zealand public servants know the requirements on them and do their best to meet them."

Public Service commissioner Peter Hughes speaks at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.

Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes Photo: Supplied / Royal Commission

Health Minister Ayesha Verrall and Education Minister Jan Tinetti yesterday said they had sought advice from Hughes on Maharey's columns and impartiality.

Hughes said that advice was under "active consideration" and he expected to publish it shortly.

"My advice is based on the facts and the law and Mr Maharey's actions... I would hope that would be [released] later today but it really depends on the actions of the Minister."

He said no other people had contacted him seeking advice on following political impartiality rules.

"I think people are pretty aware of the requirements and in my entire time in this role I've not had any issues at all regarding this matter."

He said he would be happy to look at Dyson's comments, but disagreed the three cases had exposed a pattern of politicisation of the public service in an election year.

"One swallow does not a summer make," he said. "I'm very confident that public servants in the New Zealand public service are well aware of the political neutrality requirements on them. It is core to being a public servant.

"These are senior, experienced, capable people. I think my job is to make sure they are aware of the rules and assist them to meet those rules."

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