Brownlee v Treasury: the value of an independent public service
April 10, 2016
Last week the media reported that the Minister in charge of the Christchurch rebuild programme, Gerry Brownlee, was upset about a report released by the New Zealand Treasury. The Treasury’s Major Projects Performance Report suggested that major components of the rebuild programme were not well managed, resulting in delays and budget over-runs.
Brownlee has been quoted as saying the report is “disrespectful”. Previously he has labelled the Treasury itself is “dopey”. Those are strong words for a Minister to use to describe the work of a government department. Now, I’m no expert on the rebuild process and I don’t want to be seen as judging its performance or the political leadership that is driving it. The issue for me is solely in Minister Brownlee’s response and in the nature of the disagreement between the Minister and the Treasury.
On one level, the disagreement is concerning because of the nature of the Minister’s criticism. Senior ministers using choice words such as these to describe the analysis of a government department suggests a lack of respect for that department. That’s a concern because the Treasury is responsible for providing impartial, high-quality policy advice to the Government on a range of issues. When the Government distances itself from official advice or analysis such as this, the voting public rightly has questions about where the Minister’s advice is actually coming from.
This is particularly true in this case because, as far as I am aware, Minister Brownlee has not pointed to any methodological or analytical flaws in the Treasury’s work. There is no serious, defensible suggestions that the Treasury’s analysis is wrong. Ministers are allowed to disagree with official analysis, but they should give cogent reasons for that disagreement. Simply taking negative rhetoric to the public arena as the Minister has done suggests a purely political agenda, rather than a substantive, reasonable disagreement over policy advice or analysis.
On a second level, however, the very public disagreement between the Treasury and Minister Brownlee is reassuring. That Treasury has not bowed down to obvious political pressure when preparing and releasing its report is a significant win for the independence of the public sector from Government. A crucial aspect of an effective public service is political neutrality and independence, so advice and analysis is always accurate, relevant and complete regardless of the political agenda of the government of the day. Such a public example of public sector independence is rare, but that only makes it all the more important. It suggests the public service’s role in holding Ministers (and by extension, the Government) to account is still taken seriously.
The Minister appeared on TV3’s The Nation on Saturday morning, and seemed to want to blur the lines of political accountability on this issue. Brownlee suggested that it was inappropriate for Treasury to be opining on ‘policy’ as that was a matter solely for the Minister. There was even a suggestion that there would be some kind of detrimental impact on democracy from Treasury’s contrary view being in the public arena.
None of this is an accurate statement of the public law principles involved. Treasury’s function is to provide policy advice and analysis, and in doing so it makes Ministers more democratically accountable. To be clear, it’s not Treasury’s assessment by itself that promotes political accountability (if it was, political neutrality might be at risk). It’s that both the views of Treasury and the Minister are now on the public record for all of us to decide if the Minister’s performance has been acceptable. Reasonable people may reach different conclusions on this point, but the important thing is that we are (at least partially) informed enough to reach those conclusions ourselves. Treasury’s report is democracy and public law in action, and even if we disagree with its finding we should be very grateful that it exists.