A recent 1News opinion poll found only 17 per cent of the public approved of the way Mallard was doing his job. He had to go because he was causing too much reputational damage to both the institution of Parliament and to the Labour Government, and so he has finally been eased out of Parliament’s top job.
Mallard’s new job is a crony political appointment. It goes against the ethos of New Zealand public service values in which public servants are selected based on political neutrality and professionalism. Instead, he’s been selected because of his political connections, and as a way to get rid of an embarrassment.
The Public Service Act passed in 1912 was supposed to prevent this type of behaviour by our politicians. This landmark legislation came after years of government ministers rewarding their mates and supporters with plum civil service jobs. After years of such patronage and cronyism, New Zealand’s new rules were meant to prevent corruption.
In recent years there’s been a weakening of these rules, with governments of all stripes increasingly using taxpayer-funded positions to reward their own side. This has been especially apparent in diplomacy, because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a number of plum, high-status positions that can be bestowed on former politicians.
This isn’t to say that politicians should never be appointed as ambassadors or high commissioners to foreign postings. Some former politicians have the skills to undertake these jobs very competently. The problem is these appointments are not carried out in a professional and robust way which ensures they win their new jobs on merit.
If the politicians went through the proper channels of applying for advertised jobs, in an open and competitive process, then their appointments would have greater legitimacy. Instead, the official recruitment rules of the Ministry are waived aside by ruling politicians, the appointments are made in secret, and the ability to dole out such plum jobs are therefore treated as the spoils of office.
Unfortunately, this cronyism has been increasing in recent decades, with appointments of varying degrees of merit, but always without any transparent and professional process. Mike Moore and Jim Bolger were appointed as New Zealand’s ambassadors to Washington. Former parliamentary speakers Jonathan Hunt and Lockwood Smith were appointed as High Commissioners to London. And it’s rumoured that Phil Goff is next in line to be New Zealand’s representative in the UK. Of course, Ardern’s close friend and mentor, Annette King, was also appointed as High Commissioner to Australia.
The diplomatic patronage trend is particularly dodgy when governments have created entirely new jobs with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in an apparent attempt to get rid of politicians in a way that serves the electoral interests of the parties in power. This was first seen in 2014 when Foreign Minister and National Party election strategist Murray McCully created a plum job called “Pacific Economic Ambassador” for opposition MP Shane Jones. The Labour politician had been a particularly effective critic and campaigner against the National Government, and so the Jones appointment was seen as a very astute move to increase National chances of re-election that year.
This year, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta created a new job of Pacific Gender Equality Ambassador for her friend Louisa Wall. Wall had fallen out with the Labour Party leadership and there were intense internal party controversies involving the rogue MP. Finding her a new job ensured Labour would be rid of a destabilising political problem.
Since Wall’s departure in April, revelations from MFAT show that officials had reservations about creating the new job for Wall. Internal documents released to journalist Sam Sachdeva show that the “Labour MP’s new diplomatic role was set up despite officials’ concern about duplicating existing work and getting offside with Pacific leaders expecting more senior engagement”. Similarly, Māori TV reported on the ethics of the appointment, revealing that “it has emerged that Pacific Island nations never asked for such an ambassador.”
Some argue that the appointment of such former politicians is entirely justifiable, as the personnel are especially talented and skilled in diplomacy. Some commentators even make this case for Trevor Mallard, although given his track record it is hardly convincing.
Regardless of the merits and drawbacks of the individual politicians as diplomats, New Zealand’s reputation for low levels of corruption in the public service needs to be better protected. If ruling politicians want to make the case for a change in the rules about the appointment process of public servants, then they should do so transparently rather than slowly but surely reducing the integrity of New Zealand’s political system.
This is a trend that is now too advanced to be ignored.
Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE