Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has confirmed Steve Maharey will keep his public sector board jobs, despite making politically charged comments.
Maharey is chair of drug-buying agency Pharmac, ACC, and Education New Zealand and is subject to a code of conduct requiring him to remain politically neutral.
A former Cabinet minister for Helen Clark's Labour government, he also writes a regular opinion column for Stuff.
The spotlight has fallen on politicised comments he made in the column after the summary firing of Rob Campbell from chairing roles at Te Whatu Ora (Health NZ) and the Environmental Protection Authority.
Campbell had made comments on social media disparaging opposition leader Christopher Luxon and his policies.
In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, Hipkins said advice from Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes had found Maharey had breached the code of conduct, but his actions did not justify his removal from his roles.
"The Commissioner has characterised Mr Maharey's actions as 'unwise', but at the 'lower end of the spectrum'," Hipkins said.
He said there was a "clear distinction" between Maharey's breach and Campbell's.
"In Mr Maharey's case, he proactively acknowledged the error, has undertaken to stop writing the column and apologised," Hipkins said.
"Based on this advice, Ministers Ayesha Verrall (Health), Jan Tinetti (Education) and Peeni Henare (ACC) have confirmed this morning that they retain confidence in Mr Maharey and will keep him in his roles."
Hipkins told reporters the advice showed Maharey's behaviour was "in a different league".
"It wasn't the sort of incident that would prompt someone being removed from their role," he said.
Luxon however was less sympathetic, saying National would have removed Maharey.
"Yes, we would, we would because we're saying very clearly we value an impartial public service, we think it's important and we have to make sure people hold to the code of conduct.
"When you're a governance person and you're the chair of a major Crown entity, it's not that difficult to read a code of conduct that's three or four pages long and understand your obligations. What made you successful in your previous life as a politician is a very different scenario than doing a governance role as you are."
Hughes' advice said the matter had not been raised with Maharey previously and while the breach may "merit further action", the relatively restrained nature of the comments, his history as a commentator and willingness to adjust his approach meant it fell short of a sackable offence.
Maharey had commented on two specific occassions in his column in a way that could be interpreted as engaging in party political activity.
This included criticising National's line-up after Luxon's reshuffle in January, saying they "seem more interested in the past than the future" while Labour "looks and talks like the New Zealand of the future". He also commented on Luxon's "brand".
Hughes said Maharey's phrases in isolation could appear critical or favourable of particular parties, but this was partly mitigated by the wider context.
"The comments are reflective rather than assertive, consistent with their positioning as commentary.
"My view is that aspects of the opinion pieces may have impeded his ability to act effectively under the current or a future government. On balance, I consider that this is a breach of the Code but a breach at the lower end of the spectrum."
Hughes said further action could include a written warning either from ministers or himself, or meeting with Maharey.
Dyson should 'get on and read' code of conduct
Another former Labour MP, Ruth Dyson, was pulled into the crackdown on political neutrality by public servants this morning after the National Party questioned a tweet she had made criticising Luxon's speech at Waitangi.
Dyson, the deputy chair of the Earthquake Commission and Fire and Emergency New Zealand, admitted she had not read the code of conduct, but said she was rethinking her social media use in light of Campbell's sacking.
On Tuesday afternoon, Hipkins said he had confidence in Dyson.
"She's a very competent and able chairperson, board member, contributor," he said.
However, he expected her to have read the code of conduct.
"I would certainly expect her to be reading it ... my understanding is she has subsequently been in touch with the relevant minister's office to indicate she will read the code of conduct and she will follow it.
"I think we do clearly have some work to do to make sure that everybody on those boards is familiar with the code and is following the rules of the code."
Luxon said Dyson would be gone under National.
"I think, you know, when you see Ruth Dyson saying she signed a code of conduct that she didn't read, I just say to you it's not a great start to a governance career."
Public Service Minister Andrew Little Little said Dyson should get on and read the code.
"I suspect Ruth's been around this place long enough to kind of know what's expected of her, but it would help I think if she - like every board member of every Crown entity - just updated themselves to make sure they're fully aware."
'Adhering to the code going forward'
Little had yesterday instructed Hughes to write to all Crown entity board chairs and reiterate the impartiality requirements.
Hipkins said the principle of political neutrality was long-standing, but was only laid down in the code of conduct as a core principle last year.
"Where other potential breaches are brought to light, the responsible minister will need to consider these individually, with support from the Commissioner," Hipkins said.
"However, particularly when they are historical and are at the lower end of the spectrum, my guidance to ministers is that provided the person acknowledges and regrets the breach and is clear about adhering to the code going forward, it should not necessarily result in the responsible minister losing confidence in them."
"No one is perfect, but it's only right that board chairs and members understand the bounds of what they can say without jeopardising their ability to perform their roles."
He said there were excellent people in public roles including former National and Labour MPs, and "no one thinks they don't or shouldn't hold their views", but the roles came with obligations to excercise caution and discretion.
"I think we've sent a very clear message to them that even if this stuff has happened in the past and peoople haven't noticed, people will notice now and so it needs to stop.
"I'm not going to go back through every tweet or every comment that people in these roles ahve made in the recent past but I do expect from this point onwards they'll be very familiar with the code and they'll be following it.
Little dismissed the idea of proactively monitoring board members' social media and public commentary.
"Setting up now a monitoring process for board chairs or even the hundreds of board members that we've got would be a phenomenal undertaking ... I think you trust people when you make these appointments..
"We don't ask people to completely curtail their personal lives and shut down every aspect of it, we do ask them to accept that what goes with being on the board of a public entity is some limitation on how they express themselves on political issues publicly."