Public health boss in Labour ad: Why no rules may have been broken

The Public Service Commissioner has asked his staff to write to all the board chairs urging them to read the code of conduct.

That's something former Labour minister and the now deputy chair of Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) Ruth Dyson told Newshub she hadn't bothered to do.

According to her Twitter bio, she is indeed "still Labour". 

But the problem is she's now supposed to be a politically neutral public board member as deputy chair of Fire and Emergency NZ and the Earthquake Commission.

Asked why she hasn't been acting politically neutrally, she said she hasn't said that and it's "an assumption that is incorrect". 

Dyson is the latest political perpetrator among the supposedly neutral public agency boards.

Former Te Whatu Ora chair Rob Campbell was fired for not adhering to the code of conduct requiring him to be politically neutral.

Steve Maharey, the ACC, Pharmac and Education NZ board chair, was on Wednesday spared despite writing a politically-charged column. 

Dyson tweeted on Waitangi Day about Christopher Luxon's speech: "Oh no. It sounds like some cruel junior staffer gave Mr Luxon the wrong speech!" 

The Public Service Commissioner wants public boards to take more care.

"The rules are clear. I think people need to take care in their public and published comments," said Peter Hughes. 

But he's not going to go on the hunt for rule-breakers.

"We're not the comment police." 

Dyson said she hasn't read the code of conduct.

"I didn't think of it."

Public Service Minister Andrew Little is urging her to hit the books.

"She should get on and read it," he said. 

The code of conduct is a total of two pages, comprising 984 words, including in big bold letters: "We are politically impartial".

Asked if she wished she had read it, Dyson said: "No". 

National's public service spokesperson Simeon Brown said it is "frankly appalling" that Dyson hadn't read the code of conduct.

"She is now going to reflect on something that is blatantly a breach of the code of conduct. She should resign," he said.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said Dyson has subsequently been in touch with the relevant ministers' office to say she will read the code of conduct and follow it. 

The ACT Party is also now upset about another health boss looking a bit political.

Dr Nick Chamberlain, the director of the National Public Health Service, appeared in a Labour Party ad.

"It shows how relaxed Labour are about blurring these lines," said ACT leader David Seymour. 

Newshub has been told Dr Chamberlain wasn't aware the Labour Party was going to use him in an ad. 

The Public Services Minister has asked the Commissioner to write to all board chairs to urge them to read the code of conduct.

Little said that will be to make sure all chairs are "aware of their obligations under the code of conduct and remind all board members of those obligations". 

That's a bare minimum requirement for the job, you'd think. 

Jenna Lynch Analysis

So is Labour's ad as bad as it looks? 

You have to feel for Dr Chamberlain who Te Whatu Ora has confirmed had no clue Labour was going to splash him all over their advertising.

Newshub's been told no rules have technically been broken. Political parties, while they are in Government, are allowed to advertise the work they are doing in Government. Sometimes public servants show up to events for openings of hospitals, for instance.

This particular ad was signed off by Parliamentary Service. That means it's been okayed as not falling into the category of electioneering.

But apply the sniff test: When you imagine those people in the photo as say former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and former Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, it simply would not have been done. There would have rightly been outrage about that.

It's been acknowledged to Newshub by the Beehive that it doesn’t look the greatest, that the party needs to be very careful around these things, they have erred wrong on this one and they’ll be taking a more cautious approach in the future.