Friday, May 28, 2010

"No interest" - yeah, right

The latest excuse from John Key about his not-really "blind" trust: he is now trying to say that he has "no beneficial interest" in Whitechapel Ltd, which (according to his lawyer's letter [PDF]) is owned by the Aldgate Trust and used as its investment vehicle. So it doesn't really matter that he can see what it owns.

There are two problems with this. The first of course is that this doesn't get him off the hook for lying to Parliament and the public. He told us and the House that his trust was "so blind I haven't got a clue what's in it". That is demonstrably false. Secondly, he declares an interest in the Aldgate Trust in the 2010 register of pecuniary interests. So we're supposed to believe that he has an interest in the trust, but not in anything it actually owns. That might be true in a strict, legal interpretation of "beneficial interest" - but not in the "reasonable prospect of gain" sense used by ordinary people (and the Cabinet Manual) to judge politicians. Unlike lawyers, the public understands very well that if Earl of Auckland, or Devils Creek vineyard, or Dairy Investment Fund Ltd benefit, then John Key and other members of his family will also eventually benefit. And that is what is known as a potential conflict of interest.

In New Zealand, we require such conflicts to be declared so that we can see that everything is above board, that politicians are not behaving corruptly and making decisions which financially benefit themselves. By hiding his assets in a not-blind trust, John Key has deliberately tried to prevent this. And that is politically and morally unacceptable. The standard is clear: our politicians must be seen to not be corrupt. By behaving in a way which thwarts that necessary oversight, Key has betrayed the public's trust.

I should add that this points to a wider problem: Key is not the only politician with a trust (though he is perhaps the only one to gloat about how "blind" it is), and he is therefore not the only one with potential conflicts of interest shielded from public scrutiny. If we are to prevent corruption, those interests must be exposed or eliminated. The only acceptable courses of behaviour from rich politicians are complete transparency - or complete divestment.