Thursday, May 27, 2010

Blind to us, but not to him

John Key is a very wealthy man. With wealth comes investments - otherwise known as "conflicts of interest" to politicians. Which is why when he became Prime Minister he put his investments in a trust "so blind I haven't got a clue what's in it".

Except it turns out that that might not be true. Three News reported last night that Key was boasting about owning an Otago vineyard after he'd put it into the trust. By itself, that wasn't a big thing - Key's boast was only a month after he'd established the trust, too soon for it to have made any major changes in its assets, so it was a reasonable mistake to make. But in the process, Three News discovered that Key's trust wasn't really blind: due to the way he'd set it up, its contents can be found simply by checking the companies register. So the trust is blind to us, but not to him.

This is unacceptable. The rules around disclosure of politician's interests exist for good reason: to ensure that our political decisionmaking is untainted by any suspicion of corruption or personal aggrandisement. And now that we know this, some of Key's decisions look very suspicious indeed. Key owns (and still owns, through his "blind" trust) a property development firm. Yet we're supposed to believe that it is a coincidence that he and his government opposed any land tax, capital gains tax, or other effective means of preventing the damaging effects of rampant property speculation. Key also owns (and still owns, through his "blind" trust) an Otago vineyard. Yet we're supposed to believe that it is also a coincidence that he immediately ruled out any increase in excise tax on alcohol. While we were ignorant, these decisions didn't look suspicious (stupid and shortsighted, yes, but not suspicious). Now we know that Key's trust isn't so blind, they look suspiciously well-aligned with his business investments - in other words, corrupt.

Key will no doubt make a personal explanation to the House today claiming that despite his trust not being as "blind" as he claimed it was, he never looked. The House, by Standing orders, will be obliged to take him at his word. The rest of us shouldn't be so stupid. We should demand that our politicians and cabinet ministers are above reproach in these areas. John Key has failed that test, and he is unfit to be a Member of our Parliament.

Institutionally, we can not take the word of politicians that they are not corrupt. Instead, they must be made to prove it. That's what the register of pecuniary interests is about. It is now also clear that we cannot take the word of politicians that their trusts are truly blind. Which means we must demand either proper standards to ensure that they are - or complete divestment.