Last week, the Madeleine Setchell case was at the forefront of political news and gossip. After three days in her new job as communications manager for the Ministry for the Environment (MfE), Setchell was removed – after staff in Environment Minister David Benson-Pope’s office found out her partner is Kevin Taylor, who is National leader John Key’s press secretary. Setchell declared this relationship at her initial interview and was deemed the best person for the job. So she got hired. Three days later she was out.
Her job would have provided her with government strategy with regards to climate change – a policy aimed to woo the important green vote. That’s why she was fired. A phone call to MfE Chief Executive Hugh Logan, made by a senior advisor Steve Hurring from Benson-Pope’s office, set the ball rolling. Hurring, a former Labour Party vice-president, so happens to have a partner who is the new NZ Council of Trade Unions president – Helen Kelly. Hurring also managed the 2005 election campaign for Trevor Mallard and is clearly anti-National. Of course, that should mean nothing – as personal relationships and political affiliations should not have anything to do with such employment matters – but you see the irony when Labour Ministers and political advisors apparently think it does, if that relationship straddles political divides. For the MfE to do a backroom deal and offer Setchell an alternative position was also dodgy. She never took the position.
Yet Benson-Pope claimed not to know anything about the phone call – although the Prime minister’s office may well have – and, once again, has dumped on a member of his staff, saying his advisor’s call was inappropriate. However, he also said he would not have done anything differently. Last Friday, he told media he did not know “the details of the case,” and said it was “not appropriate for [him] to comment”. Yet he later admitted he had previously discussed the matter with Logan and pretty much told him he would not be happy working with Setchell. He didn’t trust her advice, despite not knowing anything of her political opinions. All he knew was that she slept with a senior National advisor.
Benson-Pope was not only economical with the truth – a regular habit of his – but he was purposely misleading. Some would say untruthful. Now Benson-Pope’s job, at the time of writing, is hanging by a thread. Helen Clark should cut that thread. By the time you read this editorial, she may well have. You see, on that Friday he knew quite a bit – and, in a matter of days, misled the media, the State Services Commission, Parliament and his own leader. What is also disturbing is that Helen Clark said Setchell should never have been appointed to the role in the first place. It is disturbing because Clark has stated that people who have relatives, partners or friends connected to political parties other than Labour need not bother to apply for senior roles in the public service before the election – but, at the time of writing, her minister can hold a ministerial warrant after misleading all and sundry. Whatever the outcome of Benson-Pope’s job, the stand these two Ministers have been taking over this affair is undermining the neutrality of the Public Service and the role of ministerial advisors. Political advisors – who are not permanent public servants, although employed by the Department of Internal Affairs – speak for their ministers, and act on their instructions. Hurring was carrying out a task on behalf of the minister. If the minister did not know about the phone call, he should have been told about it prior to the call being made. Maybe that’s why Helen Clark said that Hurring is going to “get a little counselling”. But if Benson-Pope did know about the phone call, he should have been immediately sacked for lying about it.
Political advisors have no legal authority to direct public servants. This could include advice or comments on possible political sackings. That sort of “dictatorship of officials” should have no place in New Zealand. An advisor’s role is to give advice to – and sometimes make appropriate decisions on behalf of – their minister. They are not paid to take umbrage at appointments of people who are in a relationship with someone of another political stripe in their Minister’s ministry.
If ministers maintain it is inappropriate to comment on employment decisions, surely it is inappropriate for ministerial staff to interfere in employment decisions. For Benson-Pope to be quite content for his staff to interfere in such a way without serious sanction, and then publicly maintain political distance – before finally admitting his own involvement – is vile behaviour. He needs a jolly good spanking – and a backbench seat.