Constitutional Support for Public Service

Sir Geoffrey Palmer

Sir Geoffrey Palmer

Former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, when speaking at the May TINZ board meeting, made a case that there has been an absence of free and frank advice offered to ministers in recent for public servants from total ministerial control.

This article follows an initial account of his address, refer to Constitutional support of OIA published in Transparency Times, June 2017.

Sir Geoffrey noted that If ministers do not receive free and frank advice, there is a real risk that this will promote a tendency to politicise the public service and endanger its independence, thereby adversely affecting the quality of advice given and decisions taken.

“The public service should not be seen as a tool of the government of the day used to justify policy decisions; rather, an independent service working for the good of the country as a whole. The public service should serve up various options for dealing with issues and the ministers should choose between them. That is how a public service in the Westminster is supposed to work”.

In A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, Palmer and his co-author Andrew Butler propose the following for the Constitution:

  • The public service recognised by this Constitution is the public service in existence before this Constitution entered into force.
  • The public service is a career-based service, where appointment and promotion is on professional merit.
  • The first duty of the public service is to act in accordance with this Constitution and the law.
  • The public service must be politically neutral and impartial and must serve loyally the Government of the day.
  • The public service must provide ministers with free and frank advice.
  • The public service must uphold the concept of stewardship that is active in planning and management of medium and long-term interests, along with associated advice.
  • The public service is headed by the State Services Commissioner, appointed by a resolution of the House of Representatives after receiving a recommendation from the appropriate select committee of Parliament.
  • The Commissioner makes decisions independently of ministers and is the employer of chief executives of departments and ministries of the public service.
  • An Act of Parliament in accordance with these principles, provides for the public service and the wider state sector and the purposes of that Act are to promote and uphold a state sector system that:
    • is imbued with the spirit of service to the community
    • provides free and frank advice to the Government/li>
    • administers the policies of the Government:
    • maintains high standards of integrity and conduct
    • maintains political neutrality and impartiality
    • is supported by effective work force and personnel arrangements
    • is driven by a culture of excellence and efficiency
    • fosters a culture of stewardship
    • requires public servants to act within the law.

Other aspects of the draft Constitution that strengthen institutions include ensuring that there is sufficient regulation and oversight over political parties to ensure they do not develop corrupt tendencies in New Zealand.

Recommendations by the Royal Commission on the Electoral system in 1986 that led to MMP, should be revisited. This includes:

  • The rules of parties need more outside scrutiny
  • Minority rights and fundamental values need better protection. This respect for human rights would make an important contribution to transparency.

Sir Geoffrey concluded that his and Butler’s book makes a strong case that a written codified Constitution would improve New Zealand’s system of government.

“It would make it clearer who has what power. It would remove much of the mystery and uncertainty. It would improve knowledge of how our democracy works by providing a readable single document. It will enable the public to know what the rules are that apply to ministers, parliamentarians, and the public service”.

Speaking directly to the TINZ Board, Sir Geoffrey stated that “A Constitution can make an important contribution to achieving the aims of Transparency International New Zealand. A healthy democracy requires democratic renewal”. He asked for the Board to make a submission on the importance of public servants providing free and frank advice to transparency and to democracy. Similar to the submission he has requested of TINZ on freedom of information, he requested that the submission give thought to how a constitution would be best worded to guarantee these freedoms.

Please provide your contributions to this submission to Eva Lu at

Speech notes on transparency, governance and constitutions by Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC

Sir Geoffrey Palmer recognized by the TINZ Board

Sir Geoffrey Palmer recognized bythe TINZ Board 22 May, 2017


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