Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A fox in charge of a henhouse

Yesterday we learned that the Minister of Building and Housing, Maurice Williamson, is also a secret director of Holyoake Industries, a company which supplies products to the building industry. Its a serious conflict of interest, in that he is directly involved in the industry he is regulating, and could potentially profit from the decisions he makes. He has apparently complied with the Cabinet Manual, by having papers relating to the business sectors Holyoake is involved in dealt with by another person. But I don't think that's enough. Our Ministers must not only be free of conflicts, they must be seen to be so. And merely having papers withheld does not manage that fundamental perception issue of being a fox in charge of a henhouse (a perception which has been magnified by Holyoake's secrecy about Williamson's directorship - though he is listed in the companies register and has declared it in Parliament's Register of Pecuniary Interests, he is oddly absent from the list of directors on their website).

TVNZ quotes Brian Gaynor as arguing that Ministers should not be on the boards of major companies, particularly if that company is in the area they are responsible for. I agree. Regardless of the steps they take to manage it, the perceived conflict is too great. In addition, we pay Ministers very generously, and we deserve their full and undivided attention.

While there's no suggestion that Williamson has done anything wrong, he needs to choose whether he wants to stay a Minister, or stay in business. If he refuses, he needs to be sacked. He cannot retain the public confidence required to be a Minister while wearing two hats.