Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Update on Cabinet conflicts of interest

Last year, after the Prime Minister refused to answer questions in Parliament about Ministerial conflicts of interest, I submitted an OIA request seeking information on whether Ministers were obeying the relevant portions of the Cabinet Manual. Predictably, the government refused to answer, so I complained to the Ombudsman. The process so far has taken almost a year - not unusual with complicated issues like this - and is still not complete. But I thought I should update you on how its going.

The Ombudsman's initial views [PDF] were quite promising. Statistics on conflicts should be disclosed, unless there was administrative reason not to. Measures taken to manage a conflict of interest - basically those laid out in section 2.70 of the Cabinet Manual - should be released unless there was "some sensitivity attaching to any of the requested details". Correspondence between the Cabinet Office and Ministers would not be released, unless the Minister referred to it in public, in which case any confidence would be effectively waived. In other words, if a Minister stood up in Parliament and said (as some have) "I informed the Cabinet office, and we took appropriate steps to ensure the conflict was managed", we'd be able to check and see if they were telling the truth.

The Chief Ombudsman has since refined her views on the last matter [PDF]. Now we only get to check on a Minister if the Cabinet Secretary decides they are lying to us. In other words, we don't get to decide for ourselves that everything is above board - it gets filtered through the machine first, by people with a vested interest in not rocking the boat. So much for transparency.

The core problem, I think, is this:

Public assurance that Ministers are observing the rules on conflict of interest does not, and cannot, come from Ministers themselves. it can only come from a respected and impartial source. The Cabinet Secretary is this source...
I disagree. Public assurance can only come from public compliance, from the public being able to see that the rules are being obeyed (and not just in letter, but in spirit). The decision on whether a conflict was properly managed is not one for a public servant, but for the public. It is, after all, our government.

Anything less means that we have to take it on trust. And that is something we simply cannot afford to do in a democracy.