Repeat after me: the public service is not a political party's election policy research unit, the public service is not a political party's election policy research unit, the public service is not a political party's election policy research unit.

National's "ten bridges for your votes!" gambit at the Northland by-election is shaping up as one of the worst election policy offerings that a political party has made in recent times. I mean that in a couple of ways.

First of all, it clearly didn't work - in fact, the nation's punditary seem to have formed a consensus that it backfired quite badly and actually helped to solidify Winston Peters' support in the contest. But far worse than being a mistake, we can now see that the policy itself verges on a crime.

I hyperbolise (or whatever the verb form is), of course. There isn't any actual criminal offending involved in the promise. But by hokey, it really was a quite terrible one in both its content and its genesis.

As I noted shortly after the announcement was made, there was scant evidence that double-laning these 10 bridges represented a very good use of public money. They certainly weren't projects that the Northland Regional Council had identified as being of high priority for spending and nothing has come out since to make them look any better.

Furthermore, it turns out that one of the "one lane bridges" included in the promise takes that form because it is the only way that a road is able to pass between two iconic Kauri trees without damaging their root structure. While John Key is blithely promising that the double-laning will still take place without harming them, there appears to be no actual plans in place to enable this to happen - nor is there any indication as to how much such an engineering feat may cost us all.

In fact, it appears that no-one has ever thought about how to carry out such a project. Because thanks to Rob Salmond's swift deployment of the Official Information Act, we can now see what the New Zealand Transport Agency told Simon Bridges' office about the relevant bridge:

The single lane Darby and Joan bridge goes between two kauri trees in the Waipoua Kauri forest to protect the roots of those two trees, and cannot and should not be widened.

Now, of course official advice is and should not always be the last word on a matter of policy. But by the same token, blindly promising "we will double-lane this 'bridge'" after being told "you cannot and should not" do it without having some sort of concrete plan as to how the project can actually be achieved is ... how to put it ... bloody stupid.

What is more, Rob Salmond's OIA efforts indicate that Simon Bridges played pretty fast and loose with the rules governing public service involvement in political party policy development. The crux of it is that three emails were sent from an individual in the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) to the Minister's private secretary, who is a senior advisor in the Ministry of Transport on secondment to the Minister's office. (I'm not naming the individuals involved because none of this is their fault.) These contained a bunch of information from the NZTA about one-lane bridges in Northland and the costs associated with double-laning them, clearly in response to a frantic request from the Minister's private secretary that it be collated and provided ASAP.

As Rob Salmond's timeline shows, this information was given to the Minister's office on a Thursday and Friday. Then the following Monday, Simon Bridges emerged to stand alongside the National Party's candidate and announce the party's promise to double-lane these two bridges. This was an overtly partisan announcement - here's the press release put out under Mark Osborne's name and quoting Simon Bridges as the "National Party Transport Spokesman".

What is the problem with this, you ask? Well, there's some pretty important rules about using public servants (such as those at the NZTA, or the Minister's private secretary) to produce or cost a party's election policies. Rules such as para. 6.60 of the Cabinet Manual:

Before and after an election, the incumbent Ministers should ensure that any requests they make for advice or information from their officials is for the purposes of their portfolio responsibilities and not for party political purposes.

Or Appendix Three of the State Services Commission Guidance for the 2014 Election Period: State Servants, Political Parties, and Elections:

Costings of the policies of any political party should be provided by State servants only at the written request of the Minister of Finance or a Minister responsible for a portfolio.  A request from a member of a Minister's staff is not sufficient authority in itself.

Those rules exist for a very good reason. You see, the public service is just that - the public service. They do not exist for the purpose of promoting or benefiting any one political party over another. While the National Party may be the current Government, it has no more right to call on the public service's information and skills to create its election promises than does Labour, the Greens, New Zealand First, or the Civilian Party. Because if it can do so, then not only does it obtain an enormous advantage come election time, but the very neutrality and non-partisan nature of our public service is undermined.

(This is, incidentally, something that some Ministers understand very well - as exemplified by Bill English's response to questions on what advice he had received from Treasury about the costs of the "10 bridges for your votes" bribe.)

Of course, according to stuff.co.nz, Simon Bridges is denying that he did anything wrong here. It quotes him as saying:

I asked for factual information that I was entitled to ask for as the Transport Minister in March 2015. The National Party developed its own policy around upgrading single lane bridges in Northland.

It then goes on to quote John Key as backing Simon Bridges as follows:

There is a claim Simon Bridges breached the Cabinet Manual by using the public service to create party political policy. That's simply not the case.

But neither of these statements actually address the point at hand. The claim is not that Ministry of Transport officials put together the specific policy to double-lane the 10 bridges. That policy, as we've seen, was so daft that it obviously didn't go through Ministry channels but rather screams of being cobbled together by some amalgam of Simon Bridges, Steven Joyce, Crosby Textor and Curia.

Rather, the claim is that the requests for information that the Minister's private secretary made to the NZTA were not "for the purposes of [Simon Bridges'] portfolio responsibilities", but rather were "for party political purposes." It very much appears that Simon Bridges used the public servants that he directs to pull together all the material needed to create and attach a (fairly vague) cost to the "ten bridges for your votes" bribe. And that is something that a Minister just should not do, given the threat that it poses to public service neutrality.

Because note what you have to believe for Simon Bridges to have not breached the rules governing Ministerial behaviour in a pre-election period. You have to believe that on a Thursday and Friday, Simon Bridges - wearing his hat as Minister of Transport - had some very urgent need related to his role as Minister to gather information about one-lane bridges in Northland and the costs involved in double-laning them. Then, following the intervening weekend, he took off his Minister of Transport hat, put on his National Party Transport Spokesperson hat, and participated in a policy announcement about the double-laning of bridges in Northland (including the costs of doing so). But the information that was gathered by the public servants that he directs was not intended to allow that policy announcement to take place. Instead, it just was a happy coincidence that the (legitimate) ministerial reason for gathering all that information threw up an opportunity for his party to piggy-back on it and develop a policy of its own. 

Well, that seems simple enough to resolve. Once Simon Bridges comes out and tells us just why he, in his capacity as Minister of Transport, needed to urgently gather information on a Thursday and Friday about one-lane bridges in Northland, we'll be able to see that there was no misuse of the public service in this case. I'm sure it is a simple and clear explanation.

In fact, if there was anyone out there who was minded to put in an OIA request, they could ask him just what it was.

Comments (7)

by Eszett on April 15, 2015
Eszett

That was pretty good work done by Rob. Quick and effective. I do wonder though, if it will get traction. Maybe the Northland election will turn into Nationals biggest blunder so far.

What are the consequences if someone breaches these rules? 

by Richard on April 15, 2015
Richard

@Eszett:

Breaching the Cabinet Manual is not unlawful and it is not justiciable. Ultimately, it is the PM who decides whether a breach has occurred and what the consequences are. So, the only way anything will happen is if there is total shit-storm surrounding Bridges' breach and Curia's polling consequently suffers.

And as Bridges was surely (albeit perhaps ham-fistedly) acting on the instructions of Joyce/Crosby-Textor consequences for Bridges should lead to great unease within National.

by Phil Lyth on April 15, 2015
Phil Lyth

The SSC's Guidelines for the election period were updated in early 2014 and pushed out to the entire public sector.

 

I checked yesterday and could not see any sign that they reminded public servants in February or March for the by-election.

by Alan Johnstone on April 15, 2015
Alan Johnstone

Typical 3rd term sloppy behaviour , Key obviously will do nothing because Bridges didn't do this off his own back. Whoever was running the gig in Northland clearly told him to pull the numbers

It's illustrative of the lack of formal process at the heart of the Key administration though, the same failings that screwed up the Sky City deal are all here.

 It'll blow over pretty soon because ultimately the public don't care about this. National calculates that John Key can front things, shrug and smile, the public will accept it and it's over.

Only works for so long though, one day the public will not accept his explanation, SkyCity was the first time they got serious pushback. i don't think they have a plan b.

 

by Anne on April 15, 2015
Anne

"Whoever was running the gig in Northland clearly told him to pull the numbers."

That'll be Steven Joyce. Figures does it not? Joyce is da boss of all da bosses and he frequently acts like it. This is why Key won't demote Bridges or strip him of his ministerial portfolios.


by insider on April 16, 2015
insider

If you read the Manual and guidelines you mention, they only refer to general elections And transitions in government, not by elections. I searched the manual and by elections are not mentioned at all. That seems a pretty basic fail by you and Rob Salmon in interpreting the rules and whether they apply.

Of course no-one in the government seems to have noticed either so perhaps there is an unwritten convention that extends to by elections, but given they are pretty common events, you'd think they wouldn't be ignored in the written guidance. The fact they arent  mentioned makes the case stronger that the rules don't apply. 

by Andrew Geddis on April 16, 2015
Andrew Geddis

@insider,

Why is activity that is not OK at the general election OK in relation to a by-election? If you look at the mischief to be avoided - incumbent advantage and undermining the neutrality of the public service - then it is present at both general and by-elections. It would be very weird to say that we only care about this in respect of general elections, but come by-elections a Minister can feel free to use his or her department as an adjunct of the party's policy research and development unit.

Also, if you read the relevant section, it says:

Before and after an election, the incumbent Ministers should ensure that any requests they make for advice or information from their officials is for the purposes of their portfolio responsibilities and not for party political purposes.

If this wasn't meant to include by-elections, then why isn't this made clear? They are, after all, pretty common events.

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