13 May 2011

Today is the anniversary of Winston Churchill’s first speech in Parliament as British Prime Minister in 1940.

Yesterday, somewhat less dramatically, was the triennial publication of the State Services Commissioner’s general election guidance -“State Servants, Political Parties, and Elections: Guidance for the 2011 Election Period”.

The content is a refinement of material published before the 2008 general election which in turn evolved from previous guidance. It includes five very important appendices-

-the standards of integrity and conduct for the State Services

-government advertising guidelines in the election period

-guidance on costing political party policies

-Ombudsmen’s expectations on releasing politically sensitive official information

-preparing post-election briefings for incoming Ministers.

A familiarity with political neutrality obligations, often tested in an election period, is core to public service professionalism.

A consequence of evolving government structures and the changing responsibilities of agencies, is that definitions in statute can become distorted. The election guidance faces this problem in explaining the application of the Electoral Act section 52.  This is the provision requiring public servants to take leave from nomination day until election day.

What is a public servant? The guidance indicates that it includes kindergarten teachers and Samoan public servants. The later being an extraordinary claim to extraterritoriality as Samoa has been an independent state since 1962.  But the term excludes officials working in agencies of major constitutional significance where impartiality is paramount, such as the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, the Remuneration Authority, the Representation Commission and the Office of the Auditor General (among many others).

The law requires employees in the education service to take leave if they wish to stand for election to Parliament, but these same academics and teachers are not subject to the State Services code of conduct. Ironically, the code does apply to people working in about 100 Crown entities, but they are not  public servants who must to take leave if contesting the election.

The overriding guidance of course is the Cabinet Manual. That requires all employees in the State sector – a very broad definition – to act with a spirit of service to the community and meet high standards of integrity and conduct in everything they do.  “In particular, they must be fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy”.