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Tamihere admits sending staff to Maori Party hui

5 August 2004

Youth Affairs Minister John Tamihere yesterday admitted sending electorate staff to the Maori Party hui staff who reported back on a Labour Department employee's involvement, leading to her resignation.

Amokura Panoho had been the northern regional manager of the department's Community Employment Group (CEG), which is under review after criticism of some of its funding decisions.

Public servants had been made aware, through memos from the State Services Commission, that they could not speak on behalf of political parties.

Ms Panoho was involved behind the scenes with the Maori Party but had not thought she was active or high-profile enough that it compromised her role with the public service.

However, she resigned on Friday after being questioned about her attendance at a recent Maori Party hui a hui Mr Tamihere yesterday admitted sending staff from his electorate office to.

"I always have members of my team go to hui for Maori in my electorate," Mr Tamihere said.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said his actions showed how desperately worried Labour was about the new party.

"I would have thought that they just would have been getting on with their business rather than worrying about the Maori Party and going to the extremes of planting people," she said.

"I'm going to be very, very concerned if Labour MPs are going to plant their people in Maori Party hui to find out who are there and then report them, and then these people come under the Government's scrutiny."

Mrs Turia questioned whether all Maori public servants should now be worried about their roles and said what public servants did in their private lives was their business.

"It's quite obvious that there was a witch-hunt but I think some people have forgotten that they were public servants before they came into Parliament," she said.

Maori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia and under-secretaries Mita Ririnui and Mahara Okeroa had all been public servants who had gone into Parliament directly from their public service jobs.

National Party leader Don Brash was Reserve Bank governor until resigning three months out from the last election.

As well, current government media unit head Brendon Burns had stood for Labour in the Kaikoura electorate at the last election and had just been confirmed as the only nomination to contest the seat in the next election. Mr Burns, like Ms Panoho, is paid by the taxpayer.

". . . I think we have to be seriously concerned if people are going to be hunted down because of their affiliations to any political party," Mrs Turia said.

Ms Panoho yesterday said she had decided to resign after being spoken to about her role with the Maori Party.

She had made the decision because she did not want to give any opportunity for CEG staff to be undermined.

"I wasn't put under pressure to resign. I wasn't given an ultimatum," she told National Radio.

"It was just brought to my attention, the fact that my role as a senior public servant required for me to act in a certain way and I felt that in terms of my own personal political allegiances that was in conflict and I made the decision to resign."

Prime Minister Helen Clark said in Parliament yesterday many public servants belonged to political parties, as was their right as citizens.

However, she quoted from the Public Service Code of Conduct that "they also have a duty not to compromise their employer or their minister by public criticism of, or comment on, government policy.

Public servants should ensure that their contribution to any public debate or discussion on such matters as is appropriate to the position they hold and is compatible with the need to maintain a politically neutral public service.

Public servants occupying senior positions or working closely with ministers need to exercise particular care in this regard".

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said all senior public servants should know the requirements of neutrality.

Simply attending a political meeting was not a breach of guidelines but he believed Ms Panoho had done more than that.

"She owns up to being a principal organiser and that is simply outside the manual for civil servants," he said.

Sharon Lundy,
The Dominion Post
© Fairfax New Zealand Limited 2004

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