Gordon Campbell on the sacking of Rob Campbell

1c130296af701c6734fdUnfortunately, truth was not a defence available to Rob Campbell. He will now be replaced as chair of Te Whatu Ora, the organisation set up to run the public health system after the scrapping of the 19 district health boards.

The claims that the government has over-reacted to a private social media post are already being made. Public health veterans like Ian Powell, former head of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists has argued that the sacking was not only unjustified, but unfortunate:

“He was becoming too much of a free thinker, I think. That just did not gel with government. And so when he made this error of judgement… they’ve lopped off his head as a consequence.” Powell, a former head of the senior doctors’ union, said the loss of a key figurehead would “hurt the already-destabilised health system” and undermine the “seriously troubled” reforms.

“It’s reputational damage on top of an existing credibility issue.”

For the record, Campbell’s criticism of National and its leader was accurate. Naiional’s alternative plan to Three Waters would remove Maori from a direct role in decision-making, by scrapping the notion of co-governance. As Campbell indicated, this was a dog whistle to the kind of voters who oppose Maori having direct decision-making powers in water management, or in anything else.

Those people should be careful about what they wish for. National’s plan would expose local councils to regulation via the Commerce Commission, should they happen to fail to invest adequately in water infrastructure. Yet many local councils will only be able to borrow the money required if they can (somehow) manage to amalgamate with other councils, cut back their spending in other areas, sell some of their assets, and impose a tough user pays regime on the communities they serve.

This process would almost certainly involve higher rates bills, water connection fees, volume use charging via water meters, or all of the above. Landlords around the country would, of course, pass on to their tenants any extra costs (rates increases and water charge) imposed on them.

In the past, many local councils tried to limit rates increases and (partly as a result) failed to invest in upgrades to their water infrastructure. This failure had a variety of causes. Some councils have too few wealthy ratepayers in their catchment area, or felt gunshy about running the political risk of imposing sky high rates increases. Some small and impoverished councils had been unable to find a richer neighbouring council willing to amalgamate with them, and subsidise their needs

Despite this past experience, National would be expecting local government to do all of the above. You have to wonder – if some councils won’t or can’t, what would happen next? According to its plan’s fine print, National could well resort to the nuclear option of sacking the council and appointing a commissioner. Yes, that’s the same brand of grassroots democracy that the Key government imposed on Environment Canterbury. It is hardly a model of grassroots democracy.

In all likelihood, the process of amalgamation would take decades to implement unless a National government stumped up the funds required for a shotgun marriage between Wellington and say, Porirua. Or perhaps the people on Auckland’s North Shore will suddenly discover a hankering to use their rates to subsidise the water needs of say, the people of Dargaville. I wouldn’t bet on it.

In sum, National’s plans for water seem likely to deliver a slower, less efficient, more expensive, less socially equitable version of Three Waters, and one just as prone to regulatory controls and ratepayer revolts, with taxpayers, ultimately, footing much of the bill. Nor that National has got its messaging in coherent shape just yet, even on the basic details. Like, for instance, to be viable, will National’s plan depend on rates increases?

“Rates are not going to increase.” – National MP Simon Watts and architect of the National plan on TVNZ’s Q&A programme last Sunday:

But wait:

“Financial sustainability means there is enough money coming in either from rates or from user pays to cover the maintenance and the deprecation of the water infrastructure, and investment in new water assets. – Christopher Luxon, National Party leader,a few days before.

So either rates need to rise or user charges alone would somehow have to meet a water infrastructure shortfall already estimated to be in the $185 billion range. This would make the winter power bills look like chicken feed. The more likely result: More neglect, more decay, and ongoing exposure to the flooding events that climate-change is already sending our way. And that‘s even before we get onto National’s plans to dismantle the Te Whatu Ora/Te Aka Whai Ora structure for public health.

Borrowing for a social good

In the light of all that, what did Campbell do wrong, beyond violating a strict interpretation of the Crown Entities Act? Keep in mind that the key reason why Labour sought to centralise Three Waters into four larger entities, was to give them bargaining clout with the banks – something that a raggle-taggle series of local councils would probably fail to achieve, even before you get to the added cost and bureaucratic duplications involved of having all those councils trying to do separate deals. That’s why Campbell said this in his now infamous post on social media:

“What on earth would make anyone think this [National plan] was a sensible idea for debt raising alone, let alone the management and delivery of the tasks,”

However, instead of evaluating that scenario, we’ve all been talking instead about why Campbell committed the mortal sin by breaching an ancient convention to do with bureaucratic neutrality. In his comments on an important issue, it seems that Campbell did not genuflect to the public service manual. Apparently, he felt the fate of co-governance – both in the Three Waters context, and in the context of addressing the glaring health inequities experienced by Maori – was somehow more important.

Shouldn’t we be concerned to find out whether Campbell had a valid point? Shouldn’t we be worried that the Hipkins government seems intent on treating co-governance as a political liability? In a far narrower sense, will the little fiefdoms of local government actually have the money, the will and the skill to do the massive job that Christopher Luxon wants to palm off onto them?

As previously mentioned, if councils eventually baulk at being central government’s fall guys on water investment, water treatment and water delivery, National is already talking about firing them and bringing in an appointed board. Local representation is at risk of being a casualty of the National plan, either by amalgamation or by brute force.

That’s not a conspiracy theory. We have to keep in mind the Environment Canterbury model of water management and the Key government’s readiness to brush aside local democracy. That same EC model is waiting to be weaponised and used again by National against any councils around the country that try to drag their feet on this issue. Yet while all this is going on, we’re acting in ways that will narrow the ambit of our political discourse.

Campbell and the conventions

Given the need for a public debate on co-governance and on the ability of our water infrastructure to meet the challenge of climate change… Surely, the pressing need is to expand the debate, rather than let it be limited by adherence to a convention of neutrality that belongs to a bygone era.

Once we’ve got over clutching our pearls and having a fit of the vapours about Campbell’s bad manners, maybe we should be considering whose interests are being served by a very strict interpretation of the doctrine of public service neutrality.

In the last couple of days, a lot of lip service has been paid to the notion of “continuity.” It is as if by presenting a façade of neutrality to the general public, bureaucrats can ensure a smooth transition between governments, and soldier on facelessly for the greater good. Some people might even believe that a seasoned old hand in the public service can sometimes steer a novice Minister away from an error-prone excess of zeal, and by so doing educate them in the ways and means of a benign social democracy.

Dream on. Anyone who thinks in those terms must have watched too many British television dramas during their formative years. In reality, modern transitions of power are brutal, and they have a high body count. Public servants don’t give advice. They take orders. If it ever was, continuity is not a priority any more, not in an age where disruption is the conscious, ideological aim. Any official who can’t demonstrate they’re a useful team player gets short shrift. To repeat: National and ACT want to dismantle the current public health system. Continuity? Not so much.

The notion that if only Campbell had kept his mouth shut, then a Te Whatu Ora board appointed by Labour might be more likely to survive a change of government is a fantasy.

Sure, National has said it won’t scrap Te Whatu Ora, but there are several ways of killing a beast, including by starvation. Once in power, the organisation’s critics can restrict its funding, just as the centre-right did during its last term in office, when spending on public health comprised an ever-shrinking ratio of GDP.

That being the reality, I’m grateful Campbell has called a spade a spade. He had a compelling reason to do so. He happened to be the board chair of the largest component of the new public health system, an organisation whose rationale is to maximise the potential for co-governance not only to address past wrongs, but to turn around the dismal statistics of health, wellbeing and life expectancy that indicate just how badly the current health system continues to fail Maori.

Campbell’s comments were a defence of co-governance as the only solution to that crisis in health, and in other areas of public life. Labour, for what it sees as reasons of political survival in an election year, reportedly wants to downplay co-governance, and its commitment to Maori. That is the real battleground here, not what it says in the public service manual.

Quite accurately, Campbell has slammed National for pandering to the racists who resent Maori having any decision making role within Three Waters, or anywhere else. Yet here’s the thing. If senior experienced officials are to be denied the ability to comment on policy by the convention of public service neutrality, and if journalists are similarly constrained by the myth of objectivity from robustly evaluating public policy… Then who, exactly, is going to lead the public debate we keep on saying we need to have on the important issues of the day?

Clearly, the people who benefit the most from the cones of silence imposed by these ancient “conventions” are the politicians themselves, not the general public. In this instance, the conventions as interpreted are being used as tools to stifle debate. IMO, we need to encourage more Rob Campbells to speak their minds in our public forums. Instead, the response has been to silence the only one we had.

Footnote: All of the above aside, Campbell is a veteran of 40 years in the parliamentary bear-pit and he knows full well the rules of survival in that environment, regardless of how restrictive they are to any process of informed debate,

So… What exactly was he up to? Keep in mind that he didn’t post those comments “as a private citizen” on Facebook or Instagram or any other forum with a modicum of privacy. He put them on LinkedIn, the forum for professionals, where other professionals were likely to see it. Subsequently, he may have apologised privately to Chris Hipkins and to Health Minister Ayesha Verrall, but in public, he chose to double down on his comments.

It was as if Campbell was all but inviting the consequences that have ensued. It has also looked as if he felt the job of re-inventing the public health system for the benefit of both Treaty partners was no longer a winnable battle under the current government, let alone amidst what might come after. Campbell seems to have chosen to risk speaking out, rather than (a) be muzzled now or (b) purged later.