Russell Marshall’s Column

Russell Marshall
Russell Marshall

Loss of wise – and independent — public servants degrades public life

By Russell Marshall

In a recent conversation with a friend and contemporary, we lamented the disappearance of wise leaders of government agencies who, in earlier times, contributed to public debate about the issues confronting their departments.

We remembered people such as John Robson from Justice, Clarence Beeby and Bill Renwick from Education, Frank Corner and George Laking from Foreign Affairs, John Hiddlestone and George Salmond from Health, and various others.

For many years these and others could take part in public debate, mostly progressively so, helping to create a climate of understanding and acceptance of the need for improvements in policy.

There were also church leaders, we remembered, prepared to speak out on domestic and international issues.

What has happened that there are no longer such people and such wise public utterances?

The answer, we concluded, lies at least in part, in the changes which governments and their politicians have made to leadership of government agencies over the past three decades, assisted by the popularisation and, to some extent, the populist dumbing down of our media.

These days, at the political level, it seems that days the loyalty of senior civil servants is above all for their ministers.

None of them are free enough or there long enough to become authoritative public figures in their own right.

The ever increasing plethora of news outlets, through arguably inevitable, has also greatly diminished any sense of accurate information, wise judgement or common cause.

Witness some of the more notorious bloggers and radio talk show hosts, some of the latter now doubling as TV current affairs hosts.

Public awareness and informed judgement of current affairs and issues have thereby diminished considerably.

A generation or so ago, it was not uncommon for Heads of government departments to last for over a decade, with little demur.

They were free to travel around the country giving mostly thoughtful and often challenging addresses about their respective field.  Such addresses were given good media coverage and were sometimes collected and published in book form.

Looking back one of the features of government policy was the considerable continuity, often from one party to the other in office.

Ministers have always insisted that, in their various portfolios, they are changing for the better. The reality often did not change significantly. It was just as likely that policy direction would change within a government’s tenure.

Witness the approaches taken by three different Labour Ministers both of Health and of Foreign Affairs in the 1980s.  I am sure that, for many voters, such changes are never what they have in mind.

(Russell Marshall was the 2nd of the 3 Foreign Ministers in the 1984-90 Labour government)