Monday, 30 March 2009

democracy for some, but not for others

we live in an open democracy. which means that every person is free to join a political party, to join a protest, or to take part in democratic processes. or so you would think.

so why would CYFs staff be categorically told that they were not allowed to take part in a protest against the canning of the pay equity investigation? especially when the canning of said investigation directly affects their workplace? and when the protest is outside of their work hours?

can an employer forbid an employee to take part in a political protest? it's not like this particular protest will bring the employer into disrepute, because it wasn't CYFs that canned the investigation, it was the minister of state services ie it was not even the minister of social development who is ultimately responsible for CYFs. it's not like it's some kind of racist protest by the national front, or behaviour that is objectionable in any way.

i have a real problem with this, particularly in light of the redundancies across the public sector. at a time when jobs are being cut willy-nilly in an attempt to prove that the government is "doing something", obviously those who are visible activists or who make any kind of vocal complaint will be the first to go. fear of losing their livelihoods will mean that employees will be extremely reluctant to raise issues of injustice in their workplaces.

i've also had a doctor working in a public hospital not joining a political party because they believed they're not allowed to, as a public servant. even though they support that party's objectives and want to participate in policy discussions, they believe they can't do so because they are required to be neutral as public servants. even in their out-of-work time.

i don't know where they are getting this message from, but it really bothers me. sure they can't be political in their work time and as part of their work activities, but i don't see how their out-of-work time can be controlled in this way.

i had another experience tonight at an office of ethnic affairs workshop on making submissions to select committees. when we broke into groups for discussion, one member of our group told us that he was not allowed to make submissions because of his position. he wouldn't reveal what that position was - i'm wondering if he is a justice of peace who sits on some kind of legal tribunal. but again, it bothered me that he felt he was unable to participate in the democratic process.

surely, in a free and open democracy everyone has the right to participate, to associate with whomsover they please and to take part in legitimate protest action. but this is obviously not the reality for everyone in this country.


Deborah said...

I thought that "senior" public servants needed to be careful about their public political involvement, but not others. And "senior" means public servants who are likely to go to meetings with ministers, or front up to select committees, or interact directly with MPs, as part of their jobs. In practice that means heads of departments, perhaps their senior management teams, and some, but not all, policy wonks.

Which means that the doctor in the public hospital was being far too careful. I wonder what her agenda really was.

stargazer said...

no agenda, i'm pretty sure this was what she genuinely believed. and the CYFs worker was definitely not "senior", so i wonder what authority her employer had.

Deborah said...

State Services Commission Political Neutrality Fact Sheet 1

State servants have the same democratic rights as other New Zealanders and are encouraged to have a lively interest in the political process. To maintain public trust in their agency and the State Services as a whole, they must keep politics out of their job and their job out of politics. Provided this obligation is respected, most State servants can be fully involved in political activities. However, it is inappropriate for very senior State servants and for those who work very closely with Ministers to take an active role in party politics.

# State servants may publicly express their own political or personal views, but in doing so they must not:

* express these views in a way that could be taken as a comment in their official capacity rather than as a private citizen;
* indulge in personal attacks on Members of Parliament;
* criticise government policy with which they have been professionally involved or that the agency they work for is required to implement;
* reveal advice given to Ministers. If advice has been "officially released", for example, under the Official Information Act or through public statements made by the Minister, State servants must not comment or expand on that advice without the prior approval of their manager or chief executive;
* use or disclose official information which is not readily available to the general public.

Deborah said...

And some more from the SSC: Political Neutrality Fact Sheet 2

The more senior the State servant, the more constrained he or she needs to be in their personal conduct. For example, most junior State servants can take part in a political demonstration provided their participation is not connected to their work (e.g. wearing an agency uniform). However, it would breach political neutrality if their chief executive, or a senior State servant who works closely with Ministers, were to do so.

I'm not sure that a doctor in a public hospital counts as a senior public servant. She might be a senior doctor, but my understanding is that a senior public servant, in this context, is someone whose job takes them into regular contact with MPs and ministers.