Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Refreshing, perhaps; career-enhancing, no

It’s my guess – just a hunch, mind you – that some highly placed Labour appointees in the Wellington bureaucracy will be feeling distinctly uneasy at the prospect of a National-led government assuming power next week.

The heads of some government departments and agencies are personally aligned closely with Labour policies – possibly too closely for comfort. Having existed in a snug state of symbiosis with their political masters for the past nine years, they are likely to feel vulnerable under a government of a different ideological colour.

The branches of the bureaucracy concerned with imposing Labour-style political correctness, such as the Human Rights Commission, may have reason to feel especially insecure.

HRC chief commissioner Rosslyn Noonan is the archetypal Labour appointee. A pioneering feminist in the 1970s, she comes from a teachers’ union background and has worked with the International Labour Organisation and the UN Human Rights Commission. Before being appointed to her present post in 2001 she was trade union and human rights co-ordinator with Education International. It’s hard to imagine anyone with credentials more likely to appeal to Labour. But the ground has suddenly shifted violently under her feet.

To her great credit, Noonan opposed the Electoral Finance Act. Nonetheless it’s hard to imagine her relationship with the incoming government being one of mutual warmth and admiration. Though she was re-appointed in 2006 and her term runs till 2011, it would hardly be surprising if she exited before then.

Her fellow commissioners Joris de Bres and Judy McGregor may also be asking themselves whether they want to stick around. Race Relations Commissioner de Bres, like Noonan, has impeccable Labour credentials (he made his name in the Public Service Association) but his particular talents, which include a propensity for lecturing newspaper editors who dare to exercise the right of free speech, may have less appeal for the Nats.

Then there’s McGregor, herself a stroppy former newspaper editor who moved into academia before being anointed by Labour as Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.

McGregor appears to have little patience for fusty old public service conventions about maintaining the appearance of political neutrality. At a journalism seminar organised by the EPMU in Wellington last year she ingratiated herself with her left-leaning audience by praising trade unions as defenders of free speech and stressing the importance of union vigilance.

She went on to list the myriad failings of media proprietors (more rousing applause) and even provided a personal assessment of the country’s newspaper columnists, giving a tick of approval to people like Finlay MacDonald, Russell Brown and Tapu Misa, all of whom can be relied upon to express views that generally conform with her own, while rubbishing those from the conservative end of the spectrum, such as Richard Long, Michael Laws, Garth George and someone with a pretentious-sounding French name which for the moment escapes me.

Even setting aside the novelty of a Human Rights Commissioner publicly indicating that some columnists’ views were acceptable while others were not (this, in a country whose Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of expression), it was a speech that underlined how brazenly the public service had been politicised under Labour.

McGregor could hardly have laid her political cards on the table more clearly. And while it might have been refreshing to hear a senior public servant express herself with such candour, her views don't seem exactly career-enhancing now that there’s a National government in power.

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