Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A clear conflict of interest

Last week, I joined with other bloggers in highlighting Environment Minister Amy Adams' apparent conflict of interest over decisions she made about ECan. Adams has come out swinging, calling the excavation of her actions a "smear campaign" and even threatening defamation proceedings against a Taranaki Daily News columnist who had brought the story into the public media. Meanwhile, Rob Salmond has just highlighted the smoking gun: a 2012 Cabinet Paper on the renwal of ECan's dictatorship:

"Over several years a number of problems with ECan’s performance emerged… Key priorities of regional and national importance, such as the effective management of Canterbury’s valuable freshwater resources, were not progressed. (para 12)

"Irrigation is predicted to significantly contribute to the growth of the New Zealand economy, with Canterbury being a key contributor. The value of production in Canterbury is predicted to increase from $1,000 [per] ha to $7,000 [per] ha with the irrigation acceleration initiatives underway." (para 13)

"...there is a significant risk that the progress that has been made since the Commissioners’ appointment will stall, or at worst, be reversed at the expiry of their term with the local authority election in 2013." (para 15)


"The Act currently removes appeal rights to the Environment Court in relation to decisions made by ECan, but provides a right of appeal to the High Court on points of law. We propose to continue this limitation to decisions that are made on RMA plans and policy statements that relate to freshwater management (including those instruments containing related land use or discharge provisions). This is to ensure that the CWMS [Canterbury Water Management Strategy] is given appropriate priority and to enable broader freshwater related plans and policies to be progressed in a timely manner. This is consistent with the significance of freshwater management as reflected in other government policies including the Irrigation Acceleration Fund and Business Growth Agenda." (para 41)

Amy Adams was one of the two people who brought that paper to Cabinet (the other was then-Local Government Minister David Carter). So we have a person who owns a stake in an irrigation company (and a farm whose value will be significantly improved by irrigation) directly promoting governance arrangements designed to help the business she has shares in. As Rob points out, Adams "could reasonably be perceived as standing to gain or lose financially from decisions or acts for which [she] is responsible", meeting the Cabinet Manual test for a pecuniary conflict of interest (though he sloppily over-eggs it by failing to follow the paper trail on what Cabinet actually decided). Adams should have declared that conflict and recused herself from all decision-making on the subject. She didn't. Whether this was ethical behaviour is left as an exercise for the reader.