Health Minister Ayesha Verrall has removed Rob Campbell as the chairperson of Te Whatu Ora – Health New Zealand.
But Campbell has called her response an “inappropriate reaction” to comments he believes showed his commitment to ending inequity and honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
Campbell came under fire for publishing political comments on social media about the National Party’s Three Waters policy. Rules for public service leaders say they shouldn’t delve into politics and should maintain impartiality.
Campbell said he had apologised to National leader Christopher Luxon “for any personal offence that might have been caused” and that Luxon accepted the apology.
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“I also apologised to Ayesha Verrall for any difficulty my comments may have caused the Government. It appears she has not accepted my apology,” he said.
Verrall said on Tuesday afternoon she had lost confidence in Campbell’s ability to be a politically neutral leader of Te Whatu Ora. He was also the chairperson of the Environmental Protection Authority.
“I have raised with Mr Campbell serious concerns about the political nature of his recent social media comments,” Verrall said.
“I have decided to exercise my power under section 36 of the Crown Entities Act to remove him from this role, effective immediately.”
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said Campbell’s comments were “well outside” the code of conduct expected of Crown entity board members.
“The relevant ministers, to whom he reports are having conversations with him, and we need to let the process run its course,” Hipkins said earlier on Tuesday.
Verrall was Campbell’s boss as board chairman of Te Whatu Ora and Parker in his capacity as chairman of the Environmental Protection Authority.
Parker did not comment on Tuesday evening, when asked if Campbell would continue with the EPA.
Campbell hit back at Verrall’s decision, saying he would not apologise for his commitment to “kaupapa of the Pae Ora legislation” and ending inequity in healthcare.
“The principle of working in Tiriti partnership to achieve equity in the lives of all New Zealanders is core to my beliefs and I make no apology for that.”
He said he was sad to no longer be working with health staff, but wanted to continue advocating for Treaty partnerships and supporting the health reforms from the outside.
“I’m not making any apologies for supporting that kaupapa,” he said.
What he said
In a post on LinkedIn on Sunday, Campbell said he was “so amused” by National’s Three Waters policy, which it made public at the weekend.
“What on earth would make anyone think this was a sensible idea for debt raising alone, let alone the managment [sic] and delivery of the tasks.
”I can only think that this is a thin disguise for the dog whistle on ‘co-governance’. Christopher Luxon might be able to rescue his party from stupidity on climate change but rescuing this from a well he has dug himself might be harder.”
He also commented, in a reply to a critique of his post: “Lol. I don’t have political masters (or mistresses for that matter).”
Campbell was unrepentant in the face of mounting criticism, telling Newshub he had “nothing to apologise for and nobody I need to apologise to”.
National Party public service spokesperson Simeon Brown said Campbell’s behaviour was “totally unacceptable”, as public servants were expected to be politically neutral – particularly in an election year.
“There’s a clear expectation that he should be leading by example, and this is clearly not doing that.
“There needs to be an apology from him and a retraction of those comments, and our expectation is that there has to be some consequences for what he has done.”
Brown said it wasn’t the party’s position that Campbell should lose his jobs, but the Public Service Commission should uphold its standards.
“He can have whatever views he likes, but as someone who is appointed in that role, there are expectations, there is a code of conduct around political neutrality.”
ACT Party leader David Seymour called for Campbell to be sacked.
“What is at stake is the integrity of New Zealand’s public service. If Campbell’s behaviour goes unpunished, the rest of the public service is let down,” he said, in a statement.
“The reality is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of the Wellington bureaucracy is openly sympathetic to the left and that is a real concern.”
The Code of Conduct
Crown entity board members are expected to be “politically impartial” under the Public Service Commission’s code of conduct for entity boards.
“We do not make political statements or engage in political activity in relation to the functions of the Crown entity,” the code of conduct on the commission’s website reads.
“When acting in our private capacity, we avoid any political activity that could jeopardise our ability to perform our role or which could erode the public’s trust in the entity.”
Political neutrality was also a “public service principle” under the Public Service Act 2020.