Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Appearances matter

Oh dear. Judith Collins went to China on a taxpayer-funded trip, where she took time off to endorse her husband's company, which is also a big donor to the National Party:

Judith Collins went on a taxpayer-funded visit to China last year. In her public role as Justice Minister, she was there to talk about our system.

But she was also welcomed into a New Zealand export company that her husband has a private interest in.

She says the purpose of her visit was "to actually have a cup of tea on the way to the airport".

Ms Collins' husband, David Wong-Tung, is one of three directors of Oravida – a milk and food export company.

On its website the company referred to her as the Justice Minister. It says she recognised the company's efforts, and "congratulated us on what we have achieved and encouraged us to continue".

Ms Collins also opened the company's Auckland headquarters last year, with Mr Wong-Tung standing behind her. She says it is not an issue that she was effectively promoting the company where her husband is a director.

Except it is an issue. Firstly, because the Cabinet Manual prohibits Ministers from endorsing or promoting companies. Secondly, because of the apparent pecuniary interest. And on both fronts, the Cabint Manual is crystal clear: appearances matter:
Ministers are responsible for ensuring that no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty. Ministers must conduct themselves at all times in the knowledge that their role is a public one; appearances and propriety can be as important as an actual conflict of interest. Ministers should avoid situations in which they or those close to them gain remuneration or other advantage from information acquired only by reason of their office.

While Collins pooh-poohs the idea of a pecuniary interest, on the basis that her husband is merely a director rather than a shareholder, the public are perfectly aware that when companies do well, directors tend to do well as well. Regardless of its dollar value, a conflict of interest apparently exists. And Collins needs to be held to account for it.

And while we're at it: perhaps she'd care to explain why she hasn't announced this conflict to Cabinet? I've trawled the available conflict of interest registers (2009-20, 2010-12, 2012-13), and there's no mention of it. An ethical Minister who properly managed her conflicts would have an entry for "decisions in respect of a particular company", or (better) "decisions in respect of milk exports to China" (because, again, the public would see her having any role in a Cabinet decision on such matters as being a conflict). There is not such an entry. You can draw your own conclusions from that.