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Nats attack workers’ right to protest

Written By: - Date published: 11:59 am, July 1st, 2009 - 55 comments
Categories: activism, democracy under attack, democratic participation, national/act government, public services, sexism, workers' rights - Tags:

I am outraged to learn that the Department of Labour told its employees they were not allowed attend the pay equity rally at Parliament yesterday.

A leaked email from the department to its staff said:

“Attendance at such a demonstration may well be perceived as crossing the line by criticising a decision of the Government. The attendance of Departmental staff at the rally in whatever capacity, may therefore call into question our role as public servants serving the Government of the day.”

That is absolutely disgraceful and a clear breach of the Bill of Rights and the manager who approved it should resign. Unfortunately, it is a result of a public service management that is afraid of the new Government. The Nats have attacked an undermined public service neutrality from the start (‘purchase advisors’, interfering in independent bodies like Pharmac).

Let’s get this straight: this is a democracy. You have the right to protest. That is guaranteed under the Bill of Rights Act. If you want to protest you bloody well should and you shouldn’t ask permission.

But be smart about it to0. Join the union. Then the bosses won’t dare come after you. And if they do, your co-workers will be behind you to help you stand up for your rights.

55 comments on “Nats attack workers’ right to protest ”

  1. Mark M 1

    “If you want to protest you bloody well should and you shouldn’t ask permission.”


    Are you saying that workers are entitled to miss work without even telling the boss , while presumably still expecting to be paid.

    No wonder the countrys going down the gurgler.

    Incidentally I support equal pay but I also support workers obligations which come with having rights

    • Lew 1.1

      Mark M,

      You probably haven’t niticed that most protests in Wellington take place during the traditional lunch hour, to avoid this very problem. There’s no implication that people should skive off – just that, in their own time, they should be reasonably allowed to do as they like.


  2. Rubbish Mark – the protest was in the lunchtime. No one is missing work.

  3. NubbleTrubble 3

    Hah, “No wonder the countrys going down the gurgler.” yeah no wonder when knee-jerks like you and the Nats are in power.

    Please get informed before opening ya gob…

  4. Mark M 4

    sorry dont live in Wellington

  5. Anita 5

    The same restrictions were placed on workers during the last Labour led government, and were equally wrong then. For example many government departments either banned all staff, or all staff above a certain level, from joining the Seabed and Foreshore Hikoi.

    It is wrong, and it does need to be fixed, but I’m not sure we can hold National responsible for creating the restrictions.

    • Tim Ellis 5.1

      That’s right, Anita.

      There isn’t any evidence that I can see that it was a Ministerial intervention. The email suggests that the Labour Department sought advice from the SSC on the appropriateness of staff attending protests. The SSC guideline was drawn up in 2004 during the Hikoi.

    • Eddie 5.2

      Anita. you know as well as anyone the climate of fear and intimidation that National has brought to the public sector. People are being scared into toeing the line because they know it could cost them their jobs.

      In that context, sending that email was clearly meant to send a message to public servants (keep your heads down, don’t give us trouble with the govt) and a message to the government (‘see, we’re not biased against you, we’ll play along, we’ll be good, yes massa’).

      Fortunately, many public servants are braver than that.

      captcha: 42,000 pliant

      • Tigger 5.2.1

        I agree, National aren’t doing anything new here – just it does point out the hypocrisy of a government who claimed they were the protectors of free speech (Electoral Finance Act etc) but who have made it very clear in disucssions behind closed doors that the public sector should shut the hell up .

      • Anita 5.2.2


        Sure more public servants are more afraid for their jobs now than since the job cuts of the fourth Labour government, but I’m not sure they’re more afraid of undue political pressure than they were under the fifth Labour government.

        Under the old regime friends were shouted at, sworn at and threatened (“don’t expect to work in the public sector again if…”), others lost jobs when their teams were disestablished for unwaveringly providing unpopular advice, others lost jobs when their teams were disestablished for having been spun onto the front page of the paper by the opposition.

        Many public servants I know have felt barred from overt political participation for years now.

        Do you really think National has made those parts any worse? IMO the job cuts have scared everyone, but the political heavying and silencing is no worse.

    • George Darroch 5.3

      You’re right. Lower level public servants should have the restrictions on their ability to act as private citizens relaxed significantly.

      What’s Labour going to do about it?

      • Maynard J 5.3.1

        I do not know. Have you asked them?

        Perhaps you could offer a suggestion or two here, or over at Red Alert, if you have any good ideas and think the current SSC guidelines are overly restrictive.

        • George Darroch

          I asked them. I used to think that time in opposition would soften Labour. I now think it’s only making them more arrogant, as they become assured of their righteousness compared to the Government.

          There are some genuine attempts at listening from particular MPs, but for the most part it seems token.

  6. insider 6

    this is not a new edict. I remember similar issues with TPK on the foreshore bill. IT’s just a restatement of SSC guidelines. No drama here.


    In fact I can see no hint of a ban on general staff here, just a reminder to staff to think about how their actions may be perceived. Sensible and good management IMO within the wooly bounds of the SSC guidelines on political neurtrality.

    captcha dissent when

  7. Is this different than not allowing Rankin to protest about S59?

    • Eddie 7.1

      She is allowed to attend rallies. She’s not allowed to lead a protest campaign. Same for any public servant. There’s a difference between being a voice of opposition to the Government while also working for the government and attending a public rally as a member of the public and but not being a voice or face of that rally. It’s been long-established.

  8. indiana 8

    how long are wellington lunches?

    • Eddie 8.1

      The rally lasted about half an hour, designed to fit with people’s lunch hours. Stop trying to justify your opposition to people having the right to protest with this weak rubbish.

      The real reason you are against them protesting is because they’re criticising your precious John Key. Just admit that you don’t think people should be allowed to criticise him.

      Don’t expect us to be sucked in by the rest.

      • Tim Ellis 8.1.1

        What a load of tosh, Eddie. There is no evidence that there was any ministerial intervention, quite contrary to the claim you’ve made in this post, and quite contrary to the claim made by Grant Robertson.

        The SSC guideline was drawn up in 2004, before the hikoi protest against the labour government. The policy was never amended. It was, in fact, last updated on the SSC website mid-way through 2008, under a Labour government. The department of labour is simply applying SSC’s guidelines.

        There was no blanket ban on junior public servants, either from the Department of Labour, or elsewhere, from attending the protest. It is just dishonest to claim otherwise.

        • Maynard J

          So no one sees any contradiction between SSC guidelines

          “What is appropriate in any situation will depend on the extent of the participation, the nature of the issue, and the position the person holds. The more senior the State servant, the more constrained he or she needs to be in their personal conduct. For example, most junior State servants can take part in a political demonstration provided their participation is not connected to their work (e.g. wearing an agency uniform). However, it would breach political neutrality if their chief executive, or a senior State servant who works closely with Ministers, were to do so.”

          which call for care and emphasising this as seniority increases, with the memo which states that:

          “it would not be appropriate for Departmental officials to make public comment on the closure of the Pay and Employment Equity Unit. Senior officials, including those closely associated with particular functions and policies (such as Pay and Employment Equity in this case) need to pay specific attention to such situations and actively avoid them.
          The situation for other staff in respect to Wednesday’s rally also requires careful attention. Attendance at such a demonstration may well be perceived as crossing the line by criticising a decision of the Government. The attendance of Departmental staff at the rally in whatever capacity, may therefore call into question our role as public servants serving the Government of the day.”

          Seems to be taking it much too far there. I think eddie is right.

          • insider

            if you look at the SSC guide it implies concentric circles of caution. So the closer you are to an issue the more caution you need to show. DOL employees have to be more cautious on this issue than say Health or Education employees because it directly affects their work and the disestablishment of the unit is a key focus for Labour party and union protests.

            All the email does to me is stress that need for caution which is no more than restate the SSC guidelines.

            • Maynard J

              Labour party and union protests? Was that why cafes were offering 10% off for women? Did not know the left were into the coffee trade.

              Caution yes, implicit blanket ban, no.

          • Tim Ellis

            Maynard J, where in the correspondence is there any indication of ministerial interference in this matter, which is what Eddie is alleging, rather than the Department simply applying the SSC’s guideline?

            Yet again, it looks to me as if Eddie is just parroting Labour Party talking points. There is no additional analysis in this post. Its only reference is a Labour Party press release, with no further information to support the wobbly contention that Ministers are attacking public service neutrality.

            From a Party that sacked a PR woman who was going to lead the last government’s hallmark advertising campaign on carbon neutrality and sustainability, simply on the basis of her connection to a National Party staffer, rather than her own political views, it is a bit rich to claim National is impinging on the neutrality of the public service.

            • Eddie

              Again it’s the ‘but they did it too’ defence (and Benson-Pope was rightly sacked… and we were told why).

              I thought we were meant to be ambitious for New Zealand now.

            • Maynard J

              So eddie implies something, explains his rationale behind it, and then suggests a course of action and you accuse him of parroting talking points? That is a bit confused.

              That the department has gone so far past the SSC guideline is indicative.

              Oh, the ‘you did it too’ defence. Usually you get further than one comment before resorting to that capitulatory defence Tim.

              Was this not one of Key’s top 13 promises? Do we disregard all the promises he made if someone has done the opposite before?

              edit: snap eddie, well 7 minutes out, a slow typer!

            • Tim Ellis

              Care to recall why David Benson-Pope was sacked, Eddie? It was because he hadn’t told the full story. The story is well summed up here at http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=10454804

              Unlike the Benson-Pope affair, there is no evidence that any minister interfered with the right of public servants to protest. It looks to pretty much anybody that the DoL is applying the SSC guidelines.

              If you want the SSC guidelines to change, then fair enough. Put up a proposal to have the guidelines changed. It might spark accusations of hypocrisy, given you were pretty mute on the subject for the five years they were in place under a Labour government, but at least you would be putting up an honest proposal.

              Your allegation of Ministerial intervention doesn’t stack up.

            • Maynard J

              Look at that, there is a newspaper story saying why a minister was sacked. I thought such matters were not in the public interest.

  9. indiana 9

    I have better ways of protesting than painting banners and waving flags. You’ve made an ass of yourself if you think I’m against people’s right to protest.

    As far as criticising Key or any other politician, last time I checked NZer’s were number 1 at doing this, so why would I be so precious about that?

    Your a Union man aren’t you Eddie…I hope none of the people that went to these protests are on their last warnings from not coming back to work on time after their breaks.

    • Eddie 9.1

      Again, trying to scare the workers… if they’re late back they deserve to be sacked? this isn’t the 19th century dork. Nearly everyone in the public service is on flexitime and managers have better things to do than stand by the door with a stopwatch at lunchtime.

      • indiana 9.1.1

        You and Mallard must be mates as you both like to flex your muscles.

        If an employer follows due process, you know like how the EPMU did with that Tan fellow, then I do expect a person to get sacked if they are late for work and have history of lateness and everything was done to try and correct that problem. I also expect union reps to know when they are being fooled too by the people they are respresenting.

        But this all means nothing to you, because all employers are bad and all employees are good.

  10. Last time I worked in the public service (10 years ago now) it involved signing some kind of declaration that I wouldn’t publicly criticise the dept or govt policy. I ended up warned a couple of times for breaching it, both times involving email listservs rather than protests, but the principle’s the same. I don’t see anything specific to National in this.

  11. Eddie 11

    I think it’s worth reading Grant Robertson’s post on this, wherein he mentions his own experience with being involved in politics while a public servant, so I’ll take the unusual step of reproducing it below http://blog.labour.org.nz/index.php/2009/06/30/the-right-to-rally/ :

    When I was working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade I found myself as the campaign manager for the local body election campaign of my friend who was the Labour candidate. It was one of those things. You go to a meeting (always a big mistake) and walk out with a job to do. I recognised it was something that might see my name out and about, so I went to see my boss. He was a staunch National supporter, I think a member. He listened to my case, and said that it was fine, and despite our differences he said would always defend my right to participate in the political process.

    Public servants are ever conscious of their role to serve the government of the day, and of the restrictions placed on them by the Code of Conduct. That is what makes the Department of Labour decision to effectively tell its staff that they could not participate in the rally at Parliament today on Pay Equity very disturbing. There may well be questions about the involvement of some senior staff or perhaps those directly connected with the work, but the wider staff of the Department of Labour should in my opinion have had the right to go to the rally if they chose to.

    In recent election campaigns I have noticed that public servants seemed to be getting inconsistent and inaccurate advice about how involved they can be in campaigns, including whether they could have hoardings on fences, deliver pamphlets or even be seen with a candidate.

    I believe that the rights of public servants to participate in the political process as private citizens need to be protected, and if necessary clarified. Of course their should be guidance as to how to ensure they can continue to serve the government of the day and avoid compromising their ability to provide quality advice and support, but the interpretation of that guidance should respect the professionalism of public servants and give them their hard won democratic rights

    • Tim Ellis 11.1

      Eddie, like I said, your argument is weak and you haven’t come up with anything new to support the original contention that National is attempting to muzzle public servants. The email was from a senior DoL manager pointing out the SSC guidelines. There is no ministerial connection. It is not a new guideline. It existed, and was applied, for several years prior to this event.

      Tellingly, the period Mr Robertson spoke of, of greater freedom for public servants, was under the last National government. The edict from the SSC was drawn up in 2004, under a Labour government, and has remained in place since then.

      At the moment, Eddie, all you are doing is parroting Grant Robertson’s line on this, and particularly unsuccessfully.

      • Eddie 11.1.1

        I have never been aware of public servants being warned off attending rallies in the past. This government has created a climate of fear in the public service and this email is a result of it.

        • Tim Ellis

          Eddie, if you haven’t been aware of it in the past, then I am afraid you are just ignorant. The SSC guideline was drafted just before the hikoi against the Labour government over the foreshore and seabed issue in 2004. The guideline was used widely within the public service to discourage Maori public servants from participating in the hikoi.

          Simply repeating unsubstantiated rhetoric while ignoring the facts doesn’t improve your argument.

          This email is a response to the SSC’s guideline, drafted in 2004 under a Labour Government.

          You have no evidence of a “climate of fear in the public service”, and this issue does not add weight to your shoddy argument.

          • Pascal's bookie

            Were you in Wellington then Tim? I remember there being more than a few civil servants on the hikoi. I also remember quite a stink about Senior Civil servants getting told off for making submissions and public comments.

            Many were caught between a rock and a hard place.

            Tthere was all sorts of hefty rhetoric flying around. Nick Smith was going on about ‘beaches’, and what not. Tensions were high. Some senior civil servants were being asked by their family members back home to make some very strong feelings felt. The words ‘civil war’ were used at one point I think, by a civil servant describing those feelings. That caused some ructions. marching on the hikoi in a lunch break? Not so much.

            That’s what I remember.

  12. craig 12

    I don’t get why “you did it too” is such a bad defense…

    Surely the more things National does like the last Labour government, the happier you’ll be???

    Furthermore you guys didn’t like what National said at the last election, and you didn’t vote for National. So surely as far as you’re concerned, the less things they do that they said they were going to do, the better?

    • Maynard J 12.1

      I would accept that Labour were not perfect, and that I would rather not see National repeat those errors. So your reasoning falls flat on its face, unless you want to posit that Labour were perfect.

      It is also a bad defence because it seeks to detract from the current issue at hand – Tim clearly does not want this to be looked into, so he brings up the Setchell affair.

      This leaves someone countering with two avenues – argue that they are different, or accept the point and say that it is not good enough in both cases. I did the latter out of apathy – I did not want to argue the point with Tim. Either Labour were bad, and National should not repeat that mistake, or Labour were not bad, it is a false equivalence, and National should not do what they are doing.

      However you look at it, it is a hollow argument unless you think two wrongs equal a right, or that neither actions were wrong, or that you wish to argue that the previous action was a real example of wrong, and the current issue is right.

      Without accepting one of the above, it is basically trolling.

      • Tim Ellis 12.1.1

        Oh, the examples are very different, Maynard J.

        In the Labour example, there was actual Ministerial interference in a public service activity, which did not just end when Mr Benson-Pope got Ms Setchell fired. There was further involvement from Mr Anderton to ensure Ms Setchell did not get a job from MAF.

        Yes, that was actual Ministerial interference and intimidation of officials.

        Compare this to the current scenario: a DoL executive sending an email to DoL staff pointing out an SSC directive, which was drawn up five years ago under a Labour Government, with no indication of any Ministerial involvement.

        • Maynard J

          You see what I mean craig? Now I have to try and argue a historic point and I am sure I could waste hours relitigating that one, or agree that it was bad by Labour, and argue that this is also bad.

          • Tim Ellis

            Maynard, can you not see that one is an example of ministerial intervention in the public service, and the other most recent example is not an example of ministerial intervention, since it is clearly an official applying a state services commission guideline?

            Here’s a clue. Where in the correspondence from the DoL deputy secretary is there any indication that he was asked by the Minister to clarify this issue for staff?

            Oh, that’s right. Absolutely none.

            So Eddie’s claim of National ministers intimidating the public service fall to zero through lack of evidence.

            • Eddie

              when you’ve really got them cowed, as National has, you don’t need to tell people to toe the line, they do it automatically. National has created a climate of fear in the public service – this email is an expression of that.

            • Maynard J

              How can we tell Tim – I am pretty sure it is not in the public’s interest here to find out if there is anything more to it. But just to pander to your silly little sideshow, Tim, here is what eddie said – I repost because you have forgotten it or come up with something far worse in your mind:

              “That is absolutely disgraceful and a clear breach of the Bill of Rights and the manager who approved it should resign. Unfortunately, it is a result of a public service management that is afraid of the new Government. The Nats have attacked an undermined public service neutrality from the start.”

              Management afraid of government. Tick.
              Undermind public service neutrality. Tick.

              Two ticks National. Tell me when you are done with that straw man that you started playing with at 12:47.

            • Eddie

              That’s a little unfair MJ. That strawman’s been Tim’s faithful companion many a year. What else would he have if he gave it up?

            • Tim Ellis

              That strawman’s been Tim’s faithful companion many a year. What else would he have if he gave it up?

              So this is your standard of evidence, then.

              I haven’t yet seen a request from any Labour MP to put the email in front of the State Services Commissioner to assess whether it is goes beyond the SSC’s guideline on political activity by public servants. But then again, if Mr Robertson did do that, he might find that the SSC responded that the email is precisely within the guideline that the previous commissioner wrote in 2004, under a Labour government. That would be embarrassing.

              Eddie doesn’t have any evidence that National has the public service “cowed”, and this email does nothing of the sort.

              The PSA is critical of the DoL’s ruling, as they have a right to be, but not even they make the claim that the public service has been cowed by the Government.

  13. iheartmjs 13

    “Attendance at such a demonstration may well be perceived as crossing the line by criticising a decision of the Government. The attendance of Departmental staff at the rally in whatever capacity, may therefore call into question our role as public servants serving the Government of the day.”

    To me that fairly strongly discourages participation by department staff. “In whatever capacity” is what especially concerns me: in their capacity as private citizens of NZ during their lunch break, I feel it is entirely appropriate that staff should be able to choose to attend (or not attend) such a rally. This is not just re-stating the SSC guidelines, it is interpreting them (somewhat incorrectly). I am a junior public servant, but that I can (and do) speak out against govt policies in my own time, in my capacity as human being. The email comes across as a scare tactic, I don’t necessarily think that it was an attack by the Nats but it shows extremely poor judgement by a senior public servant. Shame on you, Mr Sage!!!

  14. Nick 14

    Let’s get this straight: this is a democracy. You have the right to protest. That is guaranteed under the Bill of Rights Act.

    Perhaps you’d like to explain where in the NZBORA this right exists.

    I’m not against your general thesis, but this statement needs challenging.

  15. deemac 15

    the only public servants who should be constrained by the regs are those at a senior level where they are formulating or expounding policy. There is no justification for the lower ranks being gagged about what they say or do in their own time.

  16. Oliver 16

    I’ve been a Public Servant since 2004 and have always been told that I should not attend protests that address policy directly related to the dept I work for. Equally I was always told that it was perfectly okay to protest on any other issue.

    I was also told that if I support National I should never let anyone in Govt know as the Labour Govt was considered to be vengeful.

    • indiana 16.1

      In Eddies world, your employer has you shaking in your boots or cowed as he refers to.

  17. Nick 17

    Fair enough of you to use those sections Eddie. However those rights don’t explicitly include “protests”. Is a peaceful assembly a protest? By its very nature, a protest is often not considered peaceful. I’m being pedantic because I argued the same as you did in a law essay some years back and got the “raised eyebrows” from the marker.

    • Anita 17.1

      Why do you think protests “often not considered peaceful”? They’re disruptive or contentious, but not peaceful seems an odd way of viewing them.

    • Eddie 17.2

      Sorry Nick, don’t take this as an insult but ask a lawyer if you know one. The right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression protect the right of people to protest on political issues all over the world. They don’t mention protests explicitly because they’re broader than just protests.

  18. Swampy 18

    Public servants are not allowed to engage in political activism, this has been an expectation of their terms of employment for many years, it has nothing to do with the National Party.

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