Monday, September 10, 2012

Finally, some transparency on Cabinet conflicts of interest

Two years ago, after it was revealed that Ministers - including John Key - were hiding substantial conflicts of interest via trusts, I became interested in how such conflicts were being managed. The Cabinet Manual sets out a range of options for managing identified conflicts of interest, but the public had absolutely no information on how or even whether those rules were being applied. And with the Prime Minister refusing to come clean in the House about it, there was good reason for suspicion. So, I asked about it, submitting an OIA request seeking both statistical information on the use of the Cabinet Manual processes, and information on the individual conflicts managed in this way.

The Cabinet Office, of course, refused to answer. So I went to the Ombudsman. And two years later, they've been forced to disclose the stats for 2009 - 2010 [PDF], and a summary of the conflicts identified and managed over that period [PDF]. The core data:

  • The Cabinet Secretary was informed of a conflict of interest under paragraph 2.69 on 38 occasions between 3 June 2009 and 3 July 2010
  • 26 of these conflicts were sufficiently serious that the Prime Minister was advised of them in writing
  • Ministers declared a conflict during a meeting on 9 occasions during that period
  • Arrangements were made for Ministers not to receive papers on an issue on which they were conflicted on 10 occasions during that period
  • Ministerial decisions were transferred to other Ministers 17 times to avoid a conflict of interest
  • No Minister ever transferred a conflicted decision to a department

There are some caveats around this: sometimes a conflict was identified and arrangements made, but then never implemented as the issue did not in fact arise. One occasion can also cover quite a lot of decision-making, depending on the complexity of the issue.

The summary gives information on the management of 26 conflicts. 7 were constituency-related, 6 portfolio related (e.g. Ministers who hold shares in SOEs), 6 pecuniary, and 7 personal, ranging from knowing someone who was a candidate for an appointment to having "a close associate work[ing] in a particular industry". Sadly, the summary is vague around the exact matter at issue, and does not provide dates (because the whole point apparently is not to publicly identify such conflicts, for fear Ministers may in future refuse to disclose them) - but it may be enough for some real journalists to do some digging. Interestingly, John Key's name does not appear on it, despite owning a vineyard (though a "blind" trust) while considering changes in alcohol policy in the period concerned. And to answer John Boscawen's original question, no Minister appears to have declared any conflict over the ETS, despite some of them having strong farming and forestry interests.

But more importantly than the actual data (which is, as I expected, sanitised and fairly innocuous), we now have a precedent for transparency. And now we need to use it to monitor these conflicts on an ongoing basis.