Political neutrality must not be used to stifle debate: political neutrality in the public sector should not be used to curtail district health board employees' rights to freedom of expression and association.
Subject: Health boards (Political aspects)
Medical societies (Political aspects)
Medical societies (Services)
Medical societies (Social aspects)
Neutrality (Political aspects)
Author: Harry, Lesley
Pub Date: 09/01/2011
Publication: Name: Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand Publisher: New Zealand Nurses' Organisation Audience: Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Health care industry Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 New Zealand Nurses' Organisation ISSN: 1173-2032
Issue: Date: Sept, 2011 Source Volume: 17 Source Issue: 8
Topic: Event Code: 360 Services information; 290 Public affairs
Product: Product Code: 8622000 Medical Associations NAICS Code: 81392 Professional Organizations SIC Code: 8621 Professional organizations
Organization: Organization: New Zealand Nurses Organisation; New Zealand Nurses Organisation; New Zealand Nurses Organisation
Geographic: Geographic Scope: New Zealand Geographic Code: 8NEWZ New Zealand
Accession Number: 268788437
Full Text: As the general election looms, district health board (DHB) managers have been informing employees of the need to adhere to the State Services Commission's (SSC) guidance on political neutrality. The guidance appears to have been generally accepted within the state sector. Senior employees and board members who provide advice to ministers and implement government policy are obliged to maintain the confidence of the government of the day. They are also required to maintain public trust in the entity and institution of government. However, the relationship between government and employees of crown entities is very different and DHBs are no exception. The one-size-fits-all approach ignores the reality that nurses do not have a direct relationship with ministers and their officials, and are not directly accountable to government. Applying the same guidelines to employees far removed from the ministerial table stretches the convention of political neutrality too far. Whether the SSC's guidelines should apply to all employees equally, without regard to their respective responsibilities, should be debated.

Preventing interference

The primary purpose of the century-old convention of political neutrality is to prevent ministers of the crown interfering with appointments and the personal administration of public services. Political neutrality serves a dual purpose: appointments are to be made without ministerial interference; and, in turn, those who are appointed are required to provide free and frank advice to ministers, without political bias. Those two principles lie at the heart of political neutrality. The convention is a permanent feature of our constitutional framework. It is not intended to be rolled out in the lead-up to the general election, which, curiously, appears to be the case with the directive from DHBs.

It is important to note that the SSC's Political Neutrality Guidance (1) provides guidance only; it is not a set of rules and each situation should be considered on its merits. However, if misused, it has the potential to be oppressive, particularly relating to the rights to freedom of speech and association. Although it recognises the right of state servants to belong to trade unions, the guidance attempts to restrict political expression to "within fairly narrowly defined limits". (1) The guidance offers no clarification as to the parameters of those limits. But the directive from the DHBs makes clear promoting a particular political party or candidate is off limits. However, the term "political expression" has a broad meaning and could be interpreted to include a range of legitimate union activities.

The guidance attempts to restrain union activity involving "political expression" to times and places dedicated for union activity and states that "in no case should such activities be visible to the general public." (1) To be fair, DHBs have not attempted to use the guidance to restrain NZNO members from participating in industrial campaigns and we do not anticipate that will be the case.

The guidance is reinforced by the State Services Commission's Standards of Integrity and Conduct. The standards refer to the need for state servants, including those who work in crown entities, to maintain political neutrality. (2) Former State Services Commissioner Mark Prebble's foreword to the discussion paper on Integrity and Conduct--Setting Standards for Crown Entities refers to the intention of political neutrality as "... requiring a bond of trust between successive sets of ministers and the public servants who advise them on policy and implement whatever decisions are made by each elected government." (3)

This discussion paper provides the background to the SSC guidance and yet draws a clear distinction between the public service and crown entities. Prebble states that, in contrast to the public service, "... crown entities are a diverse lot and there can be no general presumption of loyalty ... some employees of crown entities are obliged to promote the interest of other parties (eg patients, in the case of health professionals working in district health boards) rather than to act loyally to the government. "

This distinction is important. Nurses' and midwives' loyalty and trust obligations are first with their patients, not the government. This distinction has been lost in the directive from DHBs. Nurses' professional and ethical obligations are constant and are guided by the Nursing Council's Code of Conduct for Nurses. Nurses are obliged to provide safe, quality care and maintain their professionalism, regardless of the government of the day and its imperatives. Nurses don't need to be told to keep their personal politics away from their patients.

Standards must not suppress debate

Prebble refers to the need to take account of any special circumstances applying to each entity; that the actual standards appropriate for each crown entity or group of entities (eg DHBs) will be worked through in discussion with these entities. (3) The expectation that each crown entity be given the discretion to set its own standards, considering what is appropriate for its workforce, is clear. Standards must give real effect to the convention's purpose and not be used to suppress legitimate political debate in the workplace. The standards should not be unilaterally imposed and should be developed in consultation with NZNO.

Members should not feel intimidated by a directive they have not been consulted on. Unfortunately, however, some members and delegates are feeling uneasy about participating in activities such as encouraging workmates to sign up on the electoral role and discussing MMP. These activities in no way threaten the continuity of government or nurses' professional and ethical obligations to their patients. Rather, protecting the rights to freedom of expression and association should be seen as an essential and vibrant part of a modern democratic society.

NZNO expects to be consulted on matters of importance to members and will be calling on DHBs to consult and reach agreement for the future. In the meantime, if members have any concerns about how the directive is being applied, please contact your local organiser.


(1) State Services Commission (SSC). (2010) Political Neutrality Guidance. Wellington: SSC

(2) State Services Commission (SSC). (2007) Standards of Integrity and Conduct. Wellington: SSC.

(3) State Services Commission (SSC). (2005; updated 2010) Integrity and Conduct--Setting standards for Crown Entities. Wellington: SSC.

(4) Nursing Council of New Zealand (2009). Code of Conduct for Nurses. Wellington: The author.

By industrial adviser Lesley Harry
Gale Copyright: Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.