In the thick of it: Nicky Hager

The first in our lunchtime seminar series. Nicky Hager on why it’s important that public sector workers have the right to be politically active – but why many think they can’t be.

The video of this seminar can be viewed here, and you can watch or read the other seminars in this series here.


The book that I wrote was motivated by watching a countrywide campaign going on that was attacking all sorts of people on the public interest or progressive side of politics. The heart of the book, if you haven’t read it, was about how convenient it is for a government in power to have people who are causing troubles for their opponents, who are tripping up and smearing and creating artificial scandals and things for their opponents -  because how much easier it is to run along through politics, to stay up in the polls if your opponents are in disarray.

And it wasn’t just political parties that were being targetted. Something that stood out for me was that this machine was being used against not party leaders or main political people, but against hundreds and hundreds of people who stuck their head up in politics. In other words, it seemed that there was a concerted effort of chilling the public interest, the left, whatever you want to call it, side of politics. And the left and the public interest side aren’t always the same, but they often do coincide in the politics that we have in this country.

So there were all these people who, over time, were being shocked or scared or feeling they were doing something wrong by being involved in politics, or were finding that they had problems with their employers because they were suddenly being held up in public for what they did, and they were less likely to be involved in politics. And this, being run by people in the right of politics was again very convenient, because it meant they were essentially closing down opposing voices, and at the same time closing down opposing ideas, which made it easier for them to pursue their political agendas.

That’s what the book is about: it’s about the way that the National Party found this fantastic new tool provided by the internet called blogs, which looked and felt like the news media, but actually were completely unconstrained and where people could be attacked and smeared in ways that were unfair and unbalanced and often completely inaccurate and untruthful - but it still had that powerful effect of scaring people or intimidating people or taking them out of politics - right down to the people I met while I’ve been travelling.

I’ve been travelling the country speaking about my book, and wherever I go, I have people coming up to me saying, “that stuff you were saying, that’s exactly the experience I had.” This is public servants, this is scientists, this is people who work in DHBs, talking about their experience of being hammered, publicly, by Whale Oil or criticised by political people, having troubles in their jobs. Or even, for example, I just heard about some young Green people in Auckland who were working on something to do with environment leading up to the Election and there was some creepy National Party guy - that’s how they described him - who would hang around outside the building where they were going and take photographs of them and put them on the internet, basically to intimidate them as if they were doing something wrong by being involved in politics. When, of course, what a country needs is young people and everybody being involved in politics. Which is a subject I’m gonna come back to, because the wider issue is an idea that politics is a dirty thing which professional people need to stay away from for their credibility in their work. Which is exactly the opposite message than you want to have in a democratic society.

I’m giving a quick overview of the book now. What I concluded in the book was that you can’t ban dishonesty, you can’t stop smears and attacks. Blogs are deregulated, so an unregulated zone where people can do whatever nasty stuff they like and you can’t really stop them in the end. And the answer to these kind of destructive politics is to strengthen the other democratic parts of your society. It’s to empower people with different sorts of voices and with expertise and who are motivated by their concern about the society, not their short-term partisan interests and so on. It’s also about the strength of the news media, it’s about transparency and freedom of information, so that the government can’t simply control information that it doesn’t want the people to see. It’s about reducing the influence of big money in politics. But as I said, most importantly, it’s about ensuring that the widest range of people get heard and feel safe and empowered to participate in politics so that we don’t end up with a politics which is just the tobacco industry lobbyists and the other PR people and the partisan political voices from different sides and everyone else keeping out of the way. So that’s what the book is about.

So before I come to public servants in particular, I want to give my picture of how democracy works. Cos I don’t think that politics is dirty and an irresponsible thing for a public servant or for a professional person to be involved in. In fact, I think it’s vital that those people are involved in politics. The way democracy works is that not everyone is equal. We’re equal on polling day, but the rest of the time we’re not equal. The way that politics actually works is that it is not a communication between the government or the comms people of the government and atomised individuals sitting at home who might vote or might be asked their opinion in an opinion poll - there’s actually all the structure in between where most democracy happens. Democracy is about people who understand issues, who research things, who are a spokesperson for subjects, who speak up in their areas of specialty, who organise other people, who organise meetings like this, who do all that stuff in-between; and most people aren’t involved in that. That’s actually a set of society, town by town, city by city around the country, sector by sector. There are a certain number of people who are actually interested in the detail of policy, who actually know about stuff, who aren’t thinking about just their daily work or something. They actually take an interest in what do we do with our prison system? What’s wrong there? How do you fix these problems? What do we do about those dirty rivers? And it’s only a relatively small proportion of society that thinks about those issues and understands those issues and bothers to be political, and for reasons of upbringing and friends and accident and all the rest of those components, ends up being the ones who participate actively in society, and through them provide the information and the voices and the political opportunities and the opportunities to sign petitions and the whatever it is - all the things that actually mean that you have a democratic society. In other words, it’s a precious smaller sub-set of society that does those things.

And the politics that I’m talking about, that ‘attack politics’, is about a systematic attempt to shut down those kind of voices. And that’s what I think the issues of public service participation are, and whether or not scientists feel safe talking out in public and whether medical people feel safe talking out in public, I think it’s all about the empowerment or the chilling of that vital sector of society: the ones who make democracy work. The ones who actually have enough democratic vigour and ideas going on that we can solve big problems, that the resolution of issues aren’t just the negotiations between the industry lobby groups or the interest groups in society, but there’s actually people who are not pushing their short-term interests, but who are thinking about the problems in society and sorting them out. This is not a small thing: it’s actually at the heart of whether a public servant has got a good policy to implement or a bad policy and whether as a nation we are capable of solving the problems in front of us or we just drift while looking like we’ve got a government, but we don’t really have much of a government going on, because there aren’t the ideas and there isn’t the stuff to actually run the machine on. So I think these are really fundamental issues about who participates.

With the amount of ‘attack politics’ we have and with the chilling which I think has happened in the public service, which I will talk about and so on, what we have is we have a thinned-out society and we don’t even notice it’s going on properly. In other words, because it’s not being talked about and named and recognised and debated and worried about, it feels like we’ve got one government, one news media, we’ve got a public service and so we seem to have all the bits that you need for a society like ours. We could actually not have it working properly, cos you don’t have the right stuff going on. And that’s the state I believe we’re in. And what you can end up with is a kind of an artificial, pluralistic democracy where there seem to be different voices and there seem to be policy debates, but actually most of it isn’t going on, because who do we hear in public? Well, a lot of the time we hear the vested interest voices. We hear the same 20 or 30 voices across many political issues and they’re aligned to political parties or they’re public relations people or they’re industry lobby groups, they’re the finance sector voices, and so on. And that gives the impression of plurality, while actually we don’t have it properly going on, and the bit that’s often left out is the public interest. And actually issue by issue, you can do an analysis like that and you can see what’s missing and you can see what’s going on, but it looks like plurality and it looks like a sort of an operating democratic system, but it’s not working properly because we’re not looking in the right place about where the problem is.

And what are the voices that are missing out? Well not all voices are equal. Everybody’s got political rights, but on some issues it’s crucial that scientists are speaking. That you actually have people who are independent and who are not doing it because that’s what their chemical factory tells you the answer is, but actually speaking up on what they think should be going on. It’s the same with medical specialists, as I said. It’s the same with academics, feeling free and empowered to speak up and that that will enhance their careers and not diminish them. It’s about community groups that don’t get chilled by the fact that they’ve taken some government funding and then they get hassled that they’re using their money for advocacy, i.e., fulfilling the role in society which you would expect a group like a community group to play, and so on. We’re only a small country; if those key bits of your democratic infrastructure are weak or they’re chilled or they’re not working, well then we live with the results.

And what happens is if you take out the centre of society - that’s the reasonable voices, the informed and reasonable and non-selfish voices of society, and you systematically take them out cos they’re a nuisance, what do you get left with? Well, I think what you get left with is the extremes. You get left with the extremes of the business lobbies and the vested interests who are, ‘regulation is a sin’, ‘we must never have regulations’, ‘it is not the place of government to intervene in policy’ - that end of things. And then you tend to get the extreme voices on the other side because actually politics is seen to become a dangerous and illegitimate place to be. And all that stuff that makes a good society has been weakened by the short-term politics of the people who don’t want those other voices to be heard.

So I think that’s the big picture, those ideas, which I would like to bring here today, which I think people like us should be thinking about. And I think it’s a profound problem. I think there are many big problems in New Zealand, public policy issues, which can’t be solved unless we solve these structural problems, cos we just don’t have the brains and the voices and the balance of forces which means that we can solve those kind of problems. So I don’t think I’m talking about, we have our economy and we’ve got our law and order problems and we’ve got our environment problems and we’ve got these interesting little democracy problems on the side for if we’ve got extra spare time. I think we’re talking about the issues which enable us to deal with our big problems or not. It’s as fundamental as that, I think. But this is the precondition for being able to deal with lots of the problems that are going on in society.

So to come to public servants. You may have heard me say this before - I’ve been saying this around the country and getting nods wherever I say it. When I first came to Wellington as a student and got involved in civil liberties groups or environment groups and things, and I went along to a meeting in the evening, I would say that the majority of people in the room with me were public servants. That the people who were most likely to think about issues and want to spend their time on them, living in Wellington, were public servants. That they would do their work during the day, that they would be neutral and they would do their work properly and they would be responsible and so on, and they wouldn’t bring their department into disrepute. But it was completely legitimate that in the evening or in the lunch hour, whatever it was, they could go off as a citizen, because we value citizens, because we died in the war for democracy, remember, but where they could actually do this. They could go and be involved in political things in their spare time, own time as citizens. And that provided, at least in Wellington, a core of informed, intelligent - hopefully intelligent - interesting people who were that part of the centre thinking stuff of democratic debate and progress.

In the years since that, and I’m not saying this happened in the last six years - it started off in the Rogernomics years, it went on in the 90s, through the National Government of that time - there’s been a process where it’s felt less and less safe and less and less legitimate for a public servant or someone from the public sector to be involved in politics and to be outspoken and to be participating publicly outside their work life. To a point today, where I think that some people still do it, but most people throughout the public sector think that they’re doing something wrong when they’re involved in politics in their spare time. Maybe they can go up the back of their suburb and help with killing possums. That’s okay, cos it’s not political. But as soon as it’s something political, which is where we need those people the most because they’re informed and they understand government and so on, then they feel like they’re doing something wrong. And you know this better than I do, but I meet people all the time who tell me stories about thinking of being involved in politics or writing letters to the paper or being seen at a march or something and having it quietly communicated to them by their manager that this wasn’t a good thing for them to do. Now this is tremendously dodgy.

And what do we lose from that? We lose a huge body of participants - that is, the people who can participate in politics. We’re a small country: some people are thinking about their sports, some people are thinking about the back paddock on the farm, some farmers are thinking about the quality of the river, but there aren’t all that many people who are actually thinking about issues. And what we’re talking about is taking out a great swathe of people who should be involved in politics and they’re the kind of people who you’d want to be involved in politics. And it’s also, as a result of that, it is undermining the amount of sound policy which is being fed into the policy process by that democratic level of society.

How does this pressure happen? It happens in various ways. I know that, for example, in the years of the Business Roundtable, they said that their job was to just put out ideas and just put ideas in front of the public and the public could choose whether they wanted them. In fact what the Business Roundtable did for years was targeting individuals through the public service, through academia, in science and elsewhere, and pressuring them through their employers to shut down voices that they regarded as critical to their agenda. So that’s one way that things happen: that people who are particularly outspoken or particularly dominant can find that their careers get damaged.

And then you get examples like the one I just had one of in my book, because these things are hard to track down, they happen very quietly, which is this public servants [?15:54] who was being pressured on the Whale Oil blog on behalf of Judith Collins. Where she could use the blog to beat up somebody who she thought was responsible for a leak, who didn’t happen to be responsible for the leak, but she could punish them in the background in that way. A big case of this is because of the particular people who were funding Whale Oil to do it, is people who were being attacked over their role in public health work. And the one that I knew a lot about in that was public health people who were finding themselves named and smeared, called troughers. If you’ve heard that term, that means pigs that are putting their snouts in the public trough because they just want to get money, not because they care about the issues that they’re working on, like tobacco. And so people found themselves denigrated that way and so on - it’s gone on.

So why has this been able to happen? Well I think to be fair, part of it has been deliberate pressure. Part of it has been political expediency of not realising what was being damaged while these voices got closed down. But I think part of it was just not thinking hard about what was going on. Not realising what was going on. This morning I was reading the Public Service Code of Conduct and it says things like, “we must maintain the political neutrality that is required to enable us to work with the current and future governments.” Well of course you have to do that, we all agree with that. The public service couldn’t work without that. “We must avoid activities work or non-work that may harm the reputation of our organisation or of the State Services.” Well, we agree with that one too probably, except that it’s way too broad. That it can actually include everything. It can include everything about your whole life in your non-work time. And it isn’t set out here what’s right and what’s wrong. And so when the head of the State Services Commission says that public servants have got a right to be involved in politics, and he totally defends their right, the problem with that is that it actually isn’t spelt out in a clear way, and the real message that I hear public servants getting and which you will know more about than I do, is the opposite message, which is that you shouldn’t be doing that, you should be leaving it to the PR people in the department. That it is embarrassing and potentially inappropriate for you to be involved in politics, and so don’t do it.

And you’ve already heard, I had this case that came up the other day where I spoke in town and this guy stood up and said that he’s a public servant, he had been at my book launch for the launch of Dirty Politics and then he’d been told at work that it wasn’t appropriate for him to be there. And Iain Rennie said at that stage that he hoped that that individual would approach him, because of course that person should be able to go to the book launch. And so giving him the benefit of the doubt, I would say that obviously Iain Rennie has never even heard about the problem that I’m talking about today. How widespread this is, how many people it impacts, how it’s changed society. Because he’s obviously been thinking about other things and has just not noticed how pernicious it is to quietly close down all these people from being informed, participating citizens in the interests of so-called neutrality of the public service.

So, what I’m getting at here is, I think that the Public Service Code of Conduct and the people who are in charge of it would always argue the public servant has got a perfect right to be engaged in politics, but the wording and then the practice doesn’t actually defend people when they do that.

So what do we do about this? First one, as I’ve said, is we recognise there’s a problem. We often have this. We have problems that creep up on us but don’t get named, don’t get given a label, don’t get debated properly, and so they’re just suffered and experienced, person by person, without ever being raised to the level where we can do something about it. So that’s the most important step, is to talk about these things, and you’ve all got more experience of this than I have, which is why it is very good to be talking about this here today.

The next and obvious step in the way that you change these things is to find organisations and then politicians and then political parties who recognise the problems, who understand what’s at stake and who want to do something about it. In other words, to develop policies and to figure out what a future government would do, that cared about these things, to turn it around. Which actually I feel very optimistic about, because compared to most problems that we face in society, this is not a difficult problem. This is actually solvable. This is solvable by policy and encouragement and role-modelling and leadership. This is not like long-term, intractable-seeming social problems. This is completely solvable. But it won’t change itself by itself because there are actively interests that like it the way it is and there’s a resistance against change. So it comes to this thing.

I like the idea of a charter of political rights, I think that’s exactly the right kind of thing that the public servants should be talking about on their own behalf and then should be talked about for the public service, because people shouldn’t have to do this for themselves in a public service. This is actually an issue which affects everyone in the country.

So what would I put on the charter of political rights? I would say that all public servants should be encouraged and feel safe about participating in politics in their own time. And that by doing that, the government through its own employees would be role-modelling that it values people being involved in democratic politics. So I would make that a policy. I think that that should be worked through. I think that when there’s a government that’s persuaded they’ll do something about this, this will be promulgated through the public service, it will be stated in public policy, in the policy documents, it’ll be part of the Public Service Code of Ethics. It is actually saying the positive side of the protection of rights and the value of it and the contribution that people who have decided to live their lives as public servants can also make in their spare time to public policy issues through politics. Right? So that’s affecting people who are working in jobs where they are not normally being a spokesperson for their organisation.

There’s another level which is about other people on public salaries, which is what I said: the scientists, academics, the medical specialists, all the other people on public salaries who should be encouraged and rewarded for speaking out on public interest issues. I see this as being a cost-neutral, simple, administrative change. And of course, behind that simple administrative change would be a cultural change which would have to be encouraged and monitored and pushed. But I believe that this is the kind of invisible, unacknowledged thing which would make a huge difference to our country. It would mean that issue after issue we weren’t just listening to the same biased, vested interest voices when we’re trying to resolve the issues it faces as a country.

The final part of this is that it’s not really just an atomised problem. There’s actually a structural problem that sits behind things which are happening in the public service, which all of you know as well, but I’ll just name it and put it on the list. And that’s that what came, are the changes in the relationship between ministers and the public service in the late 1980s. Because what we had there - that’s what I would like to call a failed experiment - was a change from a more independent public service to one where, in effect, through the chief executive and through managerial structure and through PR people who are also accountable to the PR people in the ministers’ office, by construction of a process where the minister is basically running the department, as opposed to public servants running the departments as it used to be more in the past. What we’re talking about is the current system, which arose in the late 80s at a time when there was an ideological hostility to the public sector. Let’s be quite clear about what it was born out of. And that’s that a generation ago, for most of that generation, the public has turned its back on such extreme free market policies, but we’re still locked in that position in some ways, and this is one of them.

And so one of the things which I understand Matthew Palmer will be talking about when he speaks at this seminar, and which I recommend as the last thing on the list of what has happened, is that public servants and people who care about the public service and people who care about the public interest should be talking about how it’s time to change the essential structures of our public service so it is not so much a tool of the government, but returns to be more of a tool of the public interest. Thank you.