Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Serving the Public ... or Not

An interesting contrast in the political fortunes of 2 public servants in recent days.

Dame Sian Elias recently went public with some serious suggestions for addressing shortcomings in NZ's penal system. The DominionPost story was headlined "Top judge suggests prison amnesty". They reported her as saying that "We need to look at direct tools to manage the prison population if overcrowding is not to cause significant safety and human rights issues."

Her concern was not about sentencing but the consequences of that sentencing - overcrowding in prisons, with the resulting loss of dignity and infringement of the rights of prisoners.

She suggested easing current restictions on bail and parole. "If not we will have to keep building prisons and diverting resources into incapacitation. ..." she said.

What made this speech noteworthy is that Dame Sian is New Zealand's top judge. She is the Chief Justice.

John Whitehead also made the headlines: "Public servants told to lift game" in the words of the DominionPost

"Nothing should be off the table: for example, contracting out delivery as we do with some social services and others, like Australia, do with private prisons, may be more effective." At least that's what the DomPost reported him as saying.

Mr Whitehead said the public service needed to get out of its traditional comfort zone in the current economic crisis. "We must take the opportunity to build a leaner, more productive public service and we need to get on with it now."

Neither sets of suggestions were particularly innovative, extreme, provocative or new. What was interesting was the difference in the reaction.

The reaction to Dame Sian's ideas was, again as the DomPost put it, "Call for chief justice to resign". It was immediate, blunt and near vitriolic. Sensible Sentencing Trust spokesman Garth McVicar said the suggestion was "outrageous". "It's corrupt. I think she is totally on the wrong track. She should resign, if that's what she thinks, because it will be difficult for her to continue in her job."

Justice Minister Simon Power said "The Government is elected to set sentencing policy. Judges are appointed to apply it." The Prime Minister agreed. "There is a delicate line to tread here between the role and advocacy of the judiciary versus that of the minister and ... the chief justice strayed over that line," Mr Key said. In other words, 'Get back in your box, Judge.'

In marked contrast, Whitehead's speech was greeted with little comment.

The speech drew a sharp reaction from the Opposition and state sector unions. PSA national secretary Brenda Pilott criticised the "strong privatisation signal" as being misguided.

Labour state services spokesman Grant Robertson said it signalled the resurgence of The Treasury's influence over the public sector. "Where's State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie? Why is the secretary of the Treasury delivering this speech, not the person in charge of our public sector?"

But no-one questioned the right of Whitehead to give voice to his views, especially in the public arena.

So what does this all tell us?

Firstly, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that Elias is a woman and not to be trusted with such public policy matters. So much for equal employment - the glass ceiling is alive and well.

And what of Whitehead? Clearly he is a 'stalking-horse' for the right-wing. The ghost of Rogernomic lives on in this Government. The slash-and-burn brigade are just waiting their time.

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