Wednesday, February 24, 2010

No conflict of interest

Yesterday I attacked Foreign Minister Murray McCully for an apparent conflict of interest over his holding of mining shares. It turns out that the shares are worth $30, meaning that there is no conflict of interest. More importantly,

Mr McCully denied there was a conflict of interest because he had declared his shareholding in the register of pecuniary interests, and had not been present at any Cabinet discussions about mining.
So, even if there had been a serious amount of money on the line, McCully handled it properly by not being there. Good.

McCully no doubt feels hard done by by being questioned over a trivial amount of money. But he has only himself and his colleagues to blame. The MPs register of pecuniary interests does not include any details on the size of those interests, at the insistence of MPs. The result is that if something is listed, it is assumed to be significant. If MPs disclosed the value of interests, then the public would be better able to judge whether an interest is important or not. Transparency, as always, is the best solution. MPs would no doubt claim privacy, but that is more than outweighed by the public's right to honest government (and not just honest, but seen to be honest). Anyone who disagrees and wishes to engage in secret financial deals for their own aggrandisement simply should not be an MP.

(Yes, I know MPs disclose the value of interests to the registrar. But they are kept secret from the public. And the that is the fundamental problem: if it is secret, it cannot be trusted. Only full transparency lets us see that our MPs are above board).

Update: A source tells me that Ministers are routinely reminded that they can take the opportunity to rearrange their interests before the "as-at" date of 31 January each year. So it is not as if McCully wasn’t warned.