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

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Taking One for the Team

I'm of the opinion these days that David Benson-Pope should go. Too many scandals, and too much taint, fair or unfair. He's a distraction and a liability, and even though he could be doing a good job as a Cabinet member he is doing a bad job as part of the public face of this Government, and by extension of the Centre-Left.

Sometimes in politics you have to step back from a fight even though you haven't done anything wrong. I'm not saying that is necessarily the case for DBP, but I suspect he feels he hasn't offended. However the public perception is against him, and if he wants his team to win then he may have to accept a place on the reserve bench, or even in the stand watching.

He hasn't handled the Madeliene Setchell affair well, even though I kind of agree that she probably shouldn't have got the job. Conflicts of interest are also about perception, and from what I understand about the sensitivity of the job Setchell was employed for it seems she would have been at considerable risk of people assuming that she was passing information on to her National party staffer partner (or that she was in turn including ideas National would have liked in her advice). Ministry and Parliamentary jobs of this nature require a high level of trust - this is so integral that a breakdown of trust and relationship is considered a legitimate reason for terminating employment (with a three month pay out period I think?).

It's sad that Setchell couldn't have done this job without raising eyebrows. I write this as someone with a particular interest in not being judged on the politics or position of their partner, who is in a different party from me. The fact that our public service has become more politicised in the last twenty years is undeniable though. Nicky Hager had some interesting things to say about this in his lecture on The Hollow Men earlier this year. He points to the Fourth Labour Government, and the National Government of the '90s that followed, as the drivers of change in this regard. Hager believes that there has been a great purging of those holding opinions against deregulation, privatisation and the like. Certainly that might explain why even our current Labour-led Government seems to be unable to think outside many of the systems set up under governments ostensibly further to the right. It also explains why the service has changed so much that alarum bells were set off by Setchell's appointment.

The outcome of all this hasn't been fair to Setchell and it may not be fair to DBP either. But that's politics sometimes. It's isn't always right, but there it is.


Bryce said...

Span - don't you think that the reasons you give for DBP being sacked are entirely conservative ones? While I'd be keen to see DPB go too, I don't think it's a good thing for politicians to be pushed out of jobs merely because of bad PR or unfair perceptions. For those of us that fight for politics to be principled rather than pragmatic (which I thought you'd be included in) shouldn't DBP be dismissed *if* he's down something wrong rather than bad press. It's a terribly slippery slop you're headed down. And I note that Helen Clark ruthlessly used this lack of principle again and again for ditching ministers, even when they were found to have done nothing wrong.

Secondly, do you really think that the public service isn't a place for anyone who may appear not to support the government of the day? Again, your argument is heading for an incredibly slippery slope. Shouldn't we be defending workers against dismissal due to their political beliefs or their personal relationships? And don't you have a problem with government departments becoming simple propaganda devices for the government of day? It seems as if you've sided against the employment rights and the principles of a non-politicised public service just because you think of Setchell as coming from the right. Would you really have the same view if it was someone like, say, Laila Harre's partner being sacked from a govt dept by a National Government?


Cathi said...

I think whether Setchell could or couldn't do the job, including managing perceptions of how she was doing it, is an ongoing matter for her boss and the SSC, both of whom were happy to take her on despite the declared conflict, on the basis of her reputed professionalism and aptitude. Her performance reviews would show over time whether people didn't trust her.

I agree DBP must go, because he's weaselling out of his responsibility. No boss can say 'I can't be held responsible if I didn't know about it' as he did on TV last night - that's rubbish, of course you can, and should. That's what being in charge means. Only totalitarians require everything to pass over their desk before it goes out, anyone else knows that stuff happens that you don't know about, and when it goes wrong, you carry the can publicly. Internally you find out what went wrong and fix it, but externally, you front up. DBP should go, he doesn't understand this. If he'd been honest at the time and said "big clanger, silly us, reinstate her, whoops, sorry everyone" that would have been the end of the matter.

I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here and letting him say he didn't know. I actually think he did know, and was possibly involved even more than that, but in any case, whether he did or didn't, he is still responsible for the action of the person who made the call. Cowardly to say he isn't.

Insolent Prick said...

You've missed the mark, Span.

David Benson-Pope should go because he's untrustworthy. That isn't a perception. That's because he consistently misleads the New Zealand public.

David Benson-Pope should also go because he is destroying the tradition of ministerial accountability in New Zealand. Even if he did nothing, he is responsible for what his adviser did. Ministers used to resign whenever their departments did something wrong. That Helen Clark has allowed this corruption of ministerial responsibility to go on is appalling.

David Benson-Pope should go because he simply does not understand the critical neutrality of the public service.

Oh, and by the way, just because you happen to resort to rugby analogies doesn't reinforce your claim that rugby has a greater status than it should in New Zealand society.

Craig Ranapia said...


I sadly - and with all due respect to my good friend Span - have to agree with you. There's just something sad, and destructively cynical about saying 'perception is reality', and shrugging your shoulders. (When I've lost my glasses, perception is no such thing!)

As Idiot/Savant has eloquently pointed out, wherever you are on the political spectrum the political neutrality and independence of the civil service should be defended - not eroded further.

And I certainly hope as a unionist and a feminist, Span would put her foot firmly up the arse of any patriarchal tosser who sought to define her politically or professionally through her partner. :)

Psycho Milt said...

There are really only two options:

1. Benson Pope is lying when he says he wasn't behind Setchell getting sacked.

2. The guy is incompetent to run his office.

Frankly, I don't think he's incompetent. I think he's just immoral, and as a result is also electoral poison for Labour.

Even supposing that he was telling the truth, he's still got to go - someone in a position of leadership who resorts to publicly blaming a subordinate in order to get themselves off the hook just doesn't deserve to be in a position of leadership. How's anybody on his staff, from his cabinet office down to the smallest branch of his ministry, meant to take him seriously now?

Span said...

Readers may be interested in Dean Knight's two posts on this issue to date, which look at it from a legal point of view:

Knight states:
"The real issue here, in my view, is the risk that the MfE employee created an unmanageable risk of disclosure of sensitive information into the hands of opposition political parties - thereby creating a situation of possible detriment for the Ministry. Quite simply, it's difficult to maintain a "Chinese wall" at home in one's relationship."

That's where I'm coming from when I make my argument. I know, from thinking about my own personal situation, that there will be jobs I may not be able to take (or that my partner won't be able to take because of my position at the time).

Craig, people already seek to define me through my partner, and it has happened in the comments of this very blog. Never happened to him of course, and yes I do hate it. But if it was an issue of one of us working with sensitive information that the other's job would be demonstrably advantaged by accessing then we would have to stomach it.

Ok, more later, lunch is over!

Craig Ranapia said...

Craig, people already seek to define me through my partner, and it has happened in the comments of this very blog. Never happened to him of course, and yes I do hate it.

And that's an angle that really pisses me off - because you know something, it doesn't seem to happen to gay men like myself and Dr. Knight either. Does it?

This par. really got on my bloody goat:
The real issue here, in my view, is the risk that the MfE employee created an unmanageable risk of disclosure of sensitive information into the hands of opposition political parties - thereby creating a situation of possible detriment for the Ministry. Quite simply, it's difficult to maintain a "Chinese wall" at home in one's relationship. Even if one is able to not discuss sensitive "shop" matters at home, other signals are implicitly sent. Eg, The innocuous message: "Honey, I won't be home for dinner tonight. I'm really busy with something pressing at work." might convey indications of particular weakness on something which, in combination with knowledge from an opposition political adviser, is enough to alert a political party to attack the Ministry on a particular issue.

Oh, for fucks sake... How about we impose a bloody vow of celibacy on civil servants, and make them live on a reservation? Sorry, but I think there's a level of flat out paranoia coming into play here - and some folks better get their heads around the idea that it's 2007 NOT 1907. Youth and a penis aren't quite the professional edge they used to be, and I believe that's only going to become more true as some basic demographic realities kick in. This mindset isn't only sexist and patronising, but I'd respectfully suggest it's going to become bad employment practice when more and more women decide they're not going to put up with their private lives being turned into a professional disability, or seek permission slips from their partner's employer before making career decisions.

Cathi said...

Thank you Craig, that was exactly what I was going to say. Why stop at your partner, anyway, what about your mum or your dad or your sister - all these people and others can influence you.

We cannot expect people not to socialise. In any case, if they didn't, they wouldn't do their jobs as well. And the days of judging a person by what their wife, husband, father or mother did or does should be long gone.

We can however expect people to act with professionalism and loyalty and berate them if they do not.

It so happens that DBP is not acting with professionalism and nor has he on other occasions when tested.

Span said...

I have another post on this in the pipeline, in which I'll respond to the points made so far (thank you for largely making them in a pleasant manner). But please feel free to point why I'm wrong (or even right!) here in the meantime - thanks for the thought-provoking discussion :-)

Dave said...

Span, the politicisation of the public service had more to do with the prevalence of political advisors than anything else. Labour Ministers pick political advisors on the basis of who they are, not just on what what advice they can bring.
Benson Pope needs to control his office and stop hiding what he knows.

Craig Ranapia said...


Oh, sorry for getting crankypants and no disrespect intended to either your or Dean Knight for expressing a point of view. (And to be quite fair to Dean, he was laying out a plausible defence in law - not saying he necessarily agreed with the attitude behind it.) It's just that I can't believe, in 21st century New Zealand, we're even discussing a woman being (effectively) sacked for no other reason than someone doesn't like what her husband/partner does for a living. And no matter how much Tory blue I bleed, I couldn't stomach seeing anyone done over like that - it's bullying, and the one thing I hate beyond reason is bullies.

Bet you never thought you'd hear me say this, but I was in total agreement with PSA secretary Brenda Pilot on Nat Radio this morning who said the whole Stechell affair is 'murky' getting more so by the day.
I'm beginning to think there's an increasingly strong public interest in Hugh Logan and Mark Prebble actually fronting up and giving some straight answers to straight questions.

Insolent Prick said...


Not that you suggested it, but I don't have a problem at all with David Benson-Pope hiring Steve Hurring as his personal adviser. Ministerial offices are political appointments. They can say and act as they please.

One of Hurring's undoubted skills is his ability to bully the bejeezus out of people. He acquired that skill in the CTU, and as a vice president of the Labour Party. If the Labour Government wants to fill their ministerial offices with such people, then good on them.

David Benson-Pope reflects the company of ministerial advisers that he chooses to keep. And he certainly has to take responsibility for the activities of his personal advisers. He isn't doing that at all.

Dave said...

I agree, Ministers can hire who they please as advisors.But DBP does not take any responsiblity for his staff.An advisor's role is to give policy 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.

Span said...

I wrote this comment (and didn't post it, it was going to be in my second Setchell post) before the further revelations about DBP, but the substance of it still stands:

On the issue of Benson Pope, on reflection I still think he should go. Political management is an integral part of being a politician, more so the higher you get. This guy is a senior Cabinet member. He's a Minister. And this isn't the first stuff-up on his watch.

Probably if it hadn't been for the allegations about his conduct as a teacher there wouldn't be such a target on his head, and that is unfair. The way many in the Opposition (and the media) have dealt with those complaints must leave some of them sleeping crooked at night, and it makes me mad.

But it remains that DBP has not shown sufficient skill at managing these issues, and he now has a significant whiff of the liar about him. His recent actions in shopping his staffer are only making the stench worse. It may be practical politics rather than entirely principle-driven, but my opinion remains that he needs to step down, at the very least from Cabinet.

Further thoughts on the Setchell part of this later today in a new post.