Monday, May 04, 2015

Court cases and conflicts of interest

Over the weekend we learned that the brother of a Cabinet Minister is facing sex charges. But this morning, John Key announced that the unnamed Minister would not be standing down:

A Cabinet minister whose brother is facing indecency charges will not step down, Prime Minister John Key says.


Key said the minister had notified the Prime Minister's office about the situation as soon as they were made aware of the issue.

"I sought extensive advice on any next steps and the very clear advice I received was that there was no conflict of interest and that the issue can be appropriately managed," Key said.

Cabinet ministers were not responsible for the actions of their family members, he said.

And he's right, they're not. But there's still the potential for a perception of undue influence over the court process. But unless the Minister here holds a justice-sector portfolio - courts, police, justice, attorney-general - there's no perceived conflict of interest and no reason for them to step aside. There's an obvious parallel here with Labour's Carmel Sepuloni, who stood aside as opposition social development spokesperson when her mother was being prosecuted for benefit fraud - but that was always a tenuous claim of a conflict (really, what could she do about it?), and aimed more at robbing the government sleaze machine of ammunition than at preventing a real conflict of interest. And even here, the precedent wouldn't apply if the Minister is outside the justice sector.

We don't know which Minister it is, but I'm comfortable with them retaining their position if they're in an unrelated portfolio. If OTOH they're a justice sector Minister, then Key (and the Cabinet Office) has displayed an appalling lapse of judgement.