The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Monday, July 30, 2007

Further thoughts on the Setchell Affair

Last week I posted about David Benson Pope, Madeliene Setchell and conflicts of interest. I've now had the unique experience of having Kiwiblog commenters praise me for my principled approach* and being castigated in my own comments section by some people I respect (yes, including you Craig R) for not being principled about DBP, not being a feminist unionist about Setchell, and generally not supporting the political neutrality of the public service.

All of this has given me pause. I've already added my additional thoughts about DBP to the comment thread on my original post, but suffice to say the revelations of the last week have reinforced my opinion that he had to go, and I'm very relieved he has.

My thinking about Setchell's employment has evolved a bit since I posted last week. I've been pondering whether there would have been a perceived or actual conflict of interest if the employment issues had been the other way around; if Setchell already had the MfE job and Taylor was applying to be John Key's chief presser. Resoundingly the answer has to be no, but I'm not sure it's entirely because of gender. It would be to National's advantage to have a press sec with a connection high up in the MfE and so they wouldn't want to veto Taylor's appointment from that point of view. If the MfE had concerns about Setchell at that point it would be interesting to see how they would raise them in a legally appropriate way. All of this is of course totally hypothetical.

But something Craig wrote struck a particular nerve within me. I had commented that I was often judged on the political activity of my partner, and that I had hated it, and Craig thought this made my view of the Setchell Affair even worse. This has got me thinking - how has that judgement I sometimes face manifested, and does it make Setchell a fellow traveller to me?

I've been political since long before I met my partner - we were in different parties when we met and we've managed to negotiate the collapse of the coalition between our two parties in 2002 without much stress between us. We share things and we trust each other, and although there have been times each of us could have used something shared between us to the political advantage of our own party that hasn't happened once. Perhaps the example of own parents has stood us in good sted - in both cases our fathers are right-wing and our mothers from longtime Labour families, and yet both marriages are still strong after over twenty-five years together.

The main problems for me have been that people assume I am in the same party as my partner, and that I hold the same views as them (oddly by "them" I mean the person doing the assuming usually, not necessarily my partner). This is mainly an irritant because it means that people ring Nickname Pending up to ask about various things and when he's not here they are disappointed (and occassionally angry) that I a) don't know the answer and b) am not instantly enthusiastic about whatever they want to talk about.

The times that the assumption goes above the level of irritation are mainly to do with blogging. Accusations that I am writing something here for spin purposes, or because my partner told me to, or that I am arguing with someone else on another blog for those same reasons, rather than thinking (and writing) for myself drive me batty. Even when I was on the Alliance National Council and wrote about Alliance things here it was never been at the behest of someone else or to put out the party line. When my partner had a blog** I did comment on it, but not to be sycophantic - at times I disagreed with him. I did stand up to bullying I saw happening on his blog, as I have on Jordan's, and Tony's, and the blogs of others. I do this because I don't like bullying (aka trolling), and I find it at times amusing to take the piss out of those who bully, not because I am particularly passionately wounded on the target's behalf but more because I like to think I can be witty from time to time.

But I do tend to hide my partner's name and political affiliation under a bushel when it comes to my work, and this is where Setchell and I may have more in common than I had first imagined.

My colleagues all know Nickname Pending, but I won't be sharing his political activities with the union members I represent anytime soon. Not because I think it will get me in trouble with them, I hasten to add. I don't tell them about my affiliations either, and although my real identity is reasonably widely known amongst blogging circles I use a pseudonym here and I've stopped writing letters to the editor, because I would hate to think that a member felt they couldn't seek help because they found my political views, or that of my partner, distasteful.

When it's a matter of politics at work then my official view, to members and others, will be that of my employer, not mine. I've walked that fine line before, when I was on the AUSA Exec and opposed the lowering of the drinking age - it was AUSA policy to support it***, and it was my portfolio which had to do the talking, and I did it, no problem at all. I guess ultimately I prefer the delegate model, rather than the trustee approach, to political representation.

So was it unreasonable, given my personal experience, to think Setchell shouldn't have got the MfE job in the first place? I'm less decided than I was. When I reflect on how my partner and I manage to share political gossip and information without too many problems I can't help thinking that it isn't so hard because we are broadly on the same side. In 2002, when our shared computer was full of emails with strategy information from one party, and I was on the Campaign Committee of the other, I was pressured, once, to provide some inside info to my party. I demurred and that was respected.

But that was over a short period of time, and neither of us was employed by our opposing organisations. Could we do that, could anyone do that - balance along that tight-rope, particularly if they were political people, for months or years, and potentially act against the interests of their employer by not sharing what they knew? I hope so, for the sake of our public service and for the sake of those many people who have a political partner, whether they are political themselves or not. In the Setchell case the jobs are particularly sensitive - chief press sec for the Opposition Leader and communications officer for a key Ministry.****

Where have I meandered to with all this? On the one hand I still think it is politically naive to not see that there is a genuine potential for conflict of interest in the Setchell case*****. The perception is almost as bad as the reality, from my point of view - I don't think I would even apply for a job that would mean muttering behind hands everytime I walked past, or workmates withholding information from me for fear of who I might share it with.

On the other hand I do think our public service should be neutral, and thus the political affiliations of public servants, or their families, should be irrelevant to most appointments. And I certainly know what it is like to have your partner's politics thrust in your face, and unfair assumptions made. I also know that it is something women are more likely to face than men - to the best of my knowledge Nickname Pending has never had anyone even consider that my political affiliations or activities would have any bearing on him. Each man is an island, it seems.

On balance I think I may have changed my mind. Ultimately I know it is possible to operate a relationship across political lines, albeit difficult at times. Sadly the fact that many other people don't know that seems to be the main barrier to success.

*Assumedly only on DBP, as I disagreed with DPF on the issue of Setchell's conflict of interest.
** Which he started well after Spanblather began, but that didn't stop many people from assuming that my blog's purpose was to back him up. Little woman indeed.
*** I now support the current age too, by the way.
**** In the past MfE wouldn't have been all that important really, but with the competition over policy on climate change that is no longer the case.
***** I didn't get a chance to read all of Matt McCarten's column on this in the HoS, but the fact that he thinks Setchell shouldn't have got the job has made me wonder what McCarten really thought when I was on the Alliance Council and Executive, let alone the Campaign Committee.


Craig Ranapia said...

But something Craig wrote struck a particular nerve within me. I had commented that I was often judged on the political activity of my partner, and that I had hated it, and Craig thought this made my view of the Setchell Affair even worse.

First, Span, please accept my absolute and unconditional apology if any comment I made on this issue felt like I was playing the woman not the ball. (Memo to self: Rugby metaphor not working. Stop it!) You put forward a POV in good faith, and I respect it as such.

What I found "even worse" was the subtext - what the hell, it was a pretty blatant text - that we're still debating whether the little woman can be trusted to keep her damn mouth shut. And I stand by my comment that we never seem to be having these kinds of conversations around the equally real potential conflicts of interest where men are concerned.

I just find it really hard to get my head around that this b.s. is going on in 2007... And I certainly hope that when there's a change of Government - and sorry, folks, it is going to happen - that John Key isn't going to be dishing out ministerial warrants to paranoid loons who want to purge Wellywood of folks (quite literally) sleeping with the enemy.

Span said...

Definitely no apology necessary Craig, no worries. You prodded me to think deeper about my position and that is A Good Thing, thanks.

I guess my experience is that it actually isn't about keeping your mouth shut, as the person with the information. It's actually about being able to share within your relationship and know that it isn't going to go any further. I pretty much never tell someone a secret and expect them to keep it from their partner - but I do expect them and their partner not to share it with anyone else.

That could be the same in the public service/political circles - Setchell could share with Taylor about her job (and vice versa) and know that he won't use it against her or her employer, because he knows that would be beyond the pale. Given he has a long past as a journalist I think that's entirely do-able.

Anonymous said...

Span. A very thought provoking comment! It made me recall the situation of a good friend of mine who was a Union rep and at the same time married to the acting CEO! Talk about the union hopping into bed with the management! But when union and management can work and talk together - great things are possible for all.
The underlying principle for all - is mutual respect and consideration by both sides one for the other. Just as in any good marriage, if there is mutual respect and trust for each other, then there is no reason why both partners should not hold different viewpoints.


Gerrit said...

What I see this leading up to is every time there is a change of government a whole bunch of people (potentially every three years) looking for another job and having to work outside of the public service while waiting for a government to be elected who will employ them.

Not sure if that is a good thing.

But then again, time spent working in the private sector will broaden the mind and expose the public servants to the coalface of reality.

Craig Ranapia said...


To be pragmatic to a fault, it's not only a bad thing but utterly impractical. Putting aside the partisan sneers for a moment, it's at least notionally workable in the United States that a whole tier of their civil service are direct and explicitly political appointments. There's not only a much larger pool of candidates on both sides of the aisle (a good proportion of who would actually reach basic levels of competence and not merely been cronies and sycophants), but there's also the notional check and balance of most such positions requiring Congressional confirmation after public hearings.

Don't see a similar model working in a country whose whole population is about half that of New York City.

Whaleoil said...

A very good post and one of the reasons why yours in one of the very few left blog I read and do not comment on.

You always seem to have a principled view on matters and do not just vomit out the party line.

Well done

J1 said...

Span - I think the key problem in this whole affair - about the substance, that is - is that Ministers have to be comfortable with the officials they work with.

If a Minister has a problem with a proposed senior manager, or one actually in position, for any reason - personal style, methods of communicating, etc - then they have the right to have a different person in position.

That does not translate to firing people of course, which is also what didn't happen here. People get moved around in the public service all the time.

BP had to go because he didn't tell the truth about what happened. Not because of what happened. In my opinion.

Craig Ranapia said...

j1 wrote:
If a Minister has a problem with a proposed senior manager, or one actually in position, for any reason - personal style, methods of communicating, etc - then they have the right to have a different person in position.

I reply:
No, j1, I don't that's true. Believe it or not, there are still folks out there who have 'problems' with women in senior management roles, ethnic or religious minorities, and homosexuals. If you think that's a legitimate criteria for employment, then I'd respectfully suggest Parliament itself took a rather different view when it passed the Human Rights Act, and subsequent amendments.

OTOH, politicians have a long history of preaching one standard to everyone else, and doing the exact opposite so you may well be right.

Span said...

j1 (Jordan?) I agree that Ministers need to be comfortable with some of their officials - those in their own office. But you cannot demand that they vet every person in the whole Ministry, that is both unworkable and undesirable.

And Whaleoil, it rather cracks me up that I am "principled" when I just happen to agree with you.