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The dangers of mixing politics and your job

4 March 2014

The Bill of Rights Act protects freedom of speech, subject to reasonable limits proscribed by law.

Readers will be well aware that it is an election year. Undoubtedly everyone in Parliament has an eye on the upcoming campaign. The conduct of MPs will be seen in this light - but how does this affect the workplace?

Election year presents a number of pitfalls so keeping politics out of the workplace as much as possible is usually the best bet. Recent events involving Shane Taurima certainly serve as a cautionary tale.Taurima was employed as the general manager of Maori and Pacific programming at TVNZ.

It is no secret that Taurima has political affiliations. In 2013 he sought the Labour Party's nomination to run in a by-election for the seat of the late Parekura Horomia.

It seems that Taurima's political involvement continued despite returning to TVNZ following his unsuccessful campaign.

Also last year, Taurima used his unit headquarters, which is part of the TVNZ complex in Auckland, to host a meeting for Labour's Tamaki-Makaurau electorate committee. And then earlier this year Taurima participated in a Labour Party strategy meeting attended by MPs where he hosted a session on "how to win the Maori vote".

All of this has recently come to light in the media. Taurima resigned last month and admitted that he had "crossed the line" in using the state broadcaster's facilities to organise and host a Labour Party meeting. Taurima, however, denies that his political affiliations in any way impacted on editorial decisions he made while at the state broadcaster.

Taurima may not have been the only employee at TVNZ involved in political activity. Maria Kuiti, an assistant producer in the Maori and Pacific unit, and Aroha Mane, a digital content producer, have also been implicated.

TVNZ has since announced an external review will be carried out to "provide an objective and independent critique of [its] editorial performance".

Taurima's plight highlights that it is often wiser to leave politics out of the workplace. However, employers shouldn't always expect their employees to resign just because they don't toe the party line.

The Employment Court decided a case involving Teeny Lowe and the Tararua District Council a few years ago. In that case, freedom of speech prevailed.

Lowe was employed on a fixed-term contract as community development officer with the Tararua District Council. The council proposed to restructure the delivery of community development assistance by setting up a trust and reducing the funding it provides. Although these were just proposals, the council gave Lowe notice that her employment contract would terminate before it was due to expire, at which point it was expected that she would begin working for the newly created trust.

Lowe disagreed with the proposal and made no secret of that. However, she was told and given written advice to keep the plans confidential until a public meeting was called by the council to discuss the new trust.

At the meeting, a member of the public asked for Lowe's opinion on the trust. Lowe responded by reading a "prepared statement" and made comments to the effect that the trust had little credibility and no future. Lowe was promptly dismissed.

Lowe brought a claim for unjustified dismissal. The Employment Court held that it wasn't reasonable for Lowe to take a neutral stance when she was likely to be directly affected by the proposal.

Ultimately, the Employment Court decided that Lowe's statement was unlikely to cause injury to the council. The court considered that the statement was reasoned and careful, and that those present at the meeting would have been able to judge the validity of the statement from the details given.

The court also observed that the Bill of Rights Act protects freedom of speech, subject to reasonable limits proscribed by law. In this instance, the council was unable to show that this was a case where such limits should apply. Lowe's claim was accordingly successful.

The plights of Lowe and Taurima are worlds apart. In Taurima's case, he clearly was guilty of bringing his politics into a quasi-government workplace dependent on political independence for its credibility as a broadcaster. Lowe on the other hand was in a position where politics and the continuation of her employment were clearly entwined.

In New Zealand, citizens are free to express their political views and become involved in politics. Where that damages their employer's credibility, the employee's job may be at risk. Wellington is clustered with employers who depend on political independence to remain effective. Employees would therefore be wise to respect that.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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