At the weekend two public servants – one state and one federal – sought Liberal Party preselection for the NSW State Parliament. Both were legally entitled to do so. Both undermined our system of government by exercising their right. Both should now do the honourable thing and resign from their public service positions.

Pru Goward is the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner. It is a statutory position which of necessity requires commenting on political matters, and Ms Goward features prominently in the media. The success or otherwise of the Commissioner depends to a considerable extent on being seen as independent, and being respected, by both sides of politics.

The appointment of Ms Goward could have been seen as a job for the girls. She was, after all, with her husband David Barnett, Prime Minister John Howard’s biographer. The Labor Party nevertheless accepted her in the role with good grace as she complied with the traditions of an impartial public servant in being capable of separating personal political views from the performance of her official duties.

When she began seeking Liberal endorsement for the safe State seat of Epping, things changed. Of necessity Ms Goward was committing herself to promoting one political party. Now that she is being handed endorsement for the seat of Goulburn as a consolation prize, she will continue to do so.

The guidelines issued to federal public servants on their political rights say the following:

If a public servant is playing a significant part in a political campaign, there is potential for a conflict of interests between issues which are raised as part of that campaign and his or her official duties. … Comment on Political and Social Issues is relevant here. Ways of resolving such conflicts might include taking leave, rearranging existing duties, transfer to other duties or voluntary unattachment. …

Public confidence in the integrity of the public service is vital to the proper operation of government. Where the community perceives a conflict of interests, that confidence is jeopardised. Public servants need to be aware that there may be areas of their private interest, both financial and personal, which could conflict with their official duties.

These same principles are relevant to the man who won the Epping contest. Mr Greg Smith is the NSW Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions and makes decisions regularly that become part and parcel of political debate. There is no more controversial subject in state politics than law and order. An injection of partisan party politics clearly undermines public confidence in the integrity of the government process.

Peter Fray

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