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SSC On Clare Curran investigation

20 December 2007.

Commissioner's conclusions in respect of the Clare Curran investigation

Mark Prebble, State Services Commissioner,

I have received Mr Rennie's report into the facts surrounding the contract that Clare Curran had with the Ministry for the Environment during 2006. The background to this investigation was public concern and speculation that Ms Curran's contract might reflect either an inappropriate action by a Minister to secure the employment of a political ally, or an attempt to ensure that the work of the Ministry was aligned to or contributing to the Minister's political agenda.

Mr Rennie's investigation has shown that there was no ministerial direction and no inappropriate politically aligned work. On the contrary, a person of merit, with no unmanageable conflicts, was retained for an appropriate job, she did appropriate work on appropriate terms. That is the first major conclusion that can be drawn from this review.

The second conclusion however, relates to the perceptions around this matter. In this case, the Ministry's management of this contract contributed to a perception of a possible breach of neutrality. This is significant, because perceptions matter in this area.

Putting it briefly, therefore, I conclude that in substance the appointment and the work of Clare Curran were appropriate. I also conclude that the Ministry should have done more to maintain the necessary perception of neutrality.

The basis for these conclusions may be found in Mr Rennie's detailed account and comments on the events of May to July 2006. That contains a thorough account of the actions of each of the people involved.

Before moving on to draw lessons for the Public Service from these events, I need to allude briefly to another matter of recent public interest. Following her public comments about this case, Ms Erin Leigh became the subject herself of some comment in Parliament. Over the last couple of weeks both Mr Logan and the Minister have publicly explained how those comments came to be made and have offered their apologies. As a result it is unnecessary for me now to make any further comment on this matter.

As I turn to draw the lessons from this event, I am taking into account the broader pattern of behaviour that I am aware of across the Public Service. In recent months, in the context of this and the previous inquiry into the Ministry for the Environment, I have had the opportunity to check with senior management in other departments to see how they have approached similar matters. I have found many examples where managers can point to thorough and careful steps to maintain the political impartiality of the Public Service while addressing the needs of Ministers.

While that is reassuring, this report is still timely. Next year is an election year. That always leads to a heightening of political tension. At such time it is important that Public Service leaders maintain all the processes needed to support and defend the political impartiality of the Public Service. I will continue to provide guidance and assistance to agencies regarding all matters concerning the relationships, expectations and interactions among State servants, Ministers, Members of Parliament and political parties. I consider it appropriate that I take a conservative approach to such matters to ensure that impartiality is upheld.

The overall lesson, then, is that not only does our law and custom prescribe that New Zealand public servants must be impartial, we must always take care to display impartiality. It is quite reasonable that senior public servants are exposed to close public scrutiny. We cannot assume that our good intentions will always be clear to those who see our behaviour. We must continually take enough steps to demonstrate that we are maintaining impartiality. That may sometimes seem demanding, but it is a privilege to work in a democracy, and we have the opportunity to do our bit to maintain democratic values by working impartially for the government of the day.


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