Thursday, June 03, 2010

Time for transparency on Cabinet conflicts of interest

Yesterday in Parliament, ACT's John Boscawen asked the Prime Minister whether any of his Cabinet colleagues had declared a conflict of interest over the Emissions Trading Scheme. John Key refused to answer on the grounds that

It has been a longstanding practice of this Government and previous Governments not to declare conflicts of interest discussed around the Cabinet table or that are registered by Ministers, and that is a policy I intend to continue with.
This is unacceptable. The Cabinet Manual lays out a clear standard for Ministers: they must "ensur[e] that no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty". This recognises that the appearance of self-interest or corruption is as damaging to public confidence as corruption itself.

The Prime Minister's policy flies in the face of this principle. To point out the obvious: the public cannot see that Ministers are not corrupt if their conflicts and whether they declare them are cloaked in a veil of secrecy. Instead, this secrecy invites the suspicion that Ministers are colluding to screen embarrassing (and possibly corrupt) behaviour from the public. Ministers cannot be given the benefit of the doubt on this - trusting them invites corruption. Institutional distrust and full transparency are the only way of maintaining public confidence that our government is clean.

The Prime Minister won't come clean to Parliament. But that's not our only tool. Today I have filed an OIA request for specific information on the handling of Cabinet conflicts of interest in accordance with Cabinet Manual rules. While the Prime Minister will not want to answer, it is difficult to see how any of the reasons for withholding information can be applied (and in any case, they would be strongly outweighed by the public interest in disclosure). I expect a response within the statutory twenty working days; I'll let you know how it goes.