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Stuff reports that Peter Winder, Chief Executive of Te Pūkenga, the national organization that runs the NZ's 16 institutes of technology & polytechnics, has told his staff, including academics, that they are “public servants” and must remain neutral. That means, like Rob Campbell who got fired as Chair of Health NZ for expressing political views on social media, they would be forbidden from public commentary that gets stuck into one party or another.

The PM tried to smooth things over, saying the government hadn’t made changes to the Education & Training Act around academic freedom. “I haven’t seen the particular communication in concern, but I completely reiterate the Government’s support for the role of academics as critic & conscience .. They're public servants, but they have a special position & that includes as a critical conscience of society & freedom to be able to criticize government.”

Now the PM would say that, wouldn't he. Why? Because academics at our tertiary institutes are already non-neutral, tending to be biased in his favor. Aside from that point, my view is that the PM's comments are empty. Comments by Public Services Commissioner Peter Hughes, namely that academics at tertiary education institutions are not subject to the commission’s code of conduct or general election guidance are also empty. Here's why.

Te Pūkenga was created by Hipkins when he was Education Minister. He announced NZ's 16 institutes of technology & polytechnics would be brought together to operate as a single national campus network under a single CEO in 2019.

The legal device that protects academics "critic & conscience" role in society is called "tenure" in the US, which makes it hard to fire academics once they've proven themselves as being respected teachers & researchers. "Tenure is essential because it protects academic freedom: not only in cases in which a scholar's politics may run counter to those of their department, institution, or funding bodies, but also and most often in cases when a scholar's work innovates in ways that challenge received wisdom in the field", according to Wikipedia.

NZ has nothing resembling tenure. Academics are being regularly laid off & fired. Just ask academics working at AUT and Massey. The average civil servant in Wellington subject to Peter Hughes code of conduct has way more job security and is better protected by their union than most academics.

So here's the wrap: if you work at a place like Te Pūkenga then the CEO is your boss and you do what your boss tells you. The PM is not your boss at that work-place. If your boss doesn't want you doing social media with a political angle since they deem it contrary to the spirit of your job as a public servant, then you do so at your peril. Employment NZ even advises, "Activity on social networking sites (particularly outside of work hours) may be a cause for disciplinary action (including dismissal if it is serious or repeated)".

It is the PM who established the centralized authority, Te Pūkenga, with a boss having the title, Chief Executive Officer, which is a miles away from an academic-style job title. That title carries with it an authority extending to hiring & firing.

As a consequence, Hipkins advocacy of a critic & conscience role for academics in NZ is empty. If a boss turns on an employee for their political comments on social media and fires them, what is the PM saying? That the employee hire 20 lawyers to sue a Tertiary Education Institution and tries arguing the firing contravenes some words in the Education & Training Act, when the Institution will argue it does not? The law in NZ does not protect the academic from being fired in the first place. The only known mechanism for removing that threat is a tenure-style system, which we don't have.

So you may as well forget academics in NZ fulfilling the critic & conscience role Hipkins disingenuously promotes.


Newshub report, "The Health Minister [Ayesha Verrall] is in another political neutrality mess after Te Whatu Ora paid for a puff profile of her in a southern newsletter". [That is, an article about how great she is]. Verrall called the piece an "inappropriate use of public funding" & "ordered the advert of her taken down after questioning from National".

She misses the point, as does Newshub when it states, "The cost of the profile didn't incur an extra cost".

So what is the point? In an important article, my old economics co-author Rafael Di Tella at Harvard Business School discovered how government advertising in the media causes those same outlets to refrain from exposing bad things about politicians.

As we reported in a previous blog, his paper, "Government Advertising and Media Coverage of Corruption Scandals", quotes from a non-government organization which wrote a report on the issue, saying: "We found an entrenched culture of pervasive abuse by provincial government officials who manipulate distribution of advertising for political and personal purposes … The effects of such abuses are especially insidious when public sector advertising is critical to the financial survival of media outlets".

What has been exposed in the present case is that the monthly costs of just Te Whatu Ora's publications in a few outlets we now know about (Otago Daily Times, Star Dunedin, Clutha Leader, Southland Express, Oamaru Mail, Wanaka Sun) is $14,000. Those outlets know that if they criticize that agency, the advertisements may be pulled. The issue of "puff profiles" is a red herring. The economics evidence supports the idea of a dark threat underlying such ads: don't attack me, or else you will go hungry. Hence the link to media bias.

I tried finding out the extent of such public advertising, with help from the Taxpayers Union, but gave up. Why? Since it is so vast, spans so many government departments, agencies & God knows what else, and the information is so hidden, it would require thousands of Official Information Requests. We will never know how much bias it has created.


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Robert MacCulloch

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