Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Mahuta, cosyism, and ethical standards

The Herald this morning has another episode in its campaign against Nanaia Mahuta, this time focusing on her role in appointing a young relative to a government job. There is no question that Mahuta is being targeted because of her race - no-one would ask questions about her actions if she was pakeha - and yet it also raises real questions about the way government is conducted in this country.

Labour's hacks are trying to minimise the relationship: the person is her "husband's nephew's wife". Which is intentionally structured to sound more distant than it is - in the modern world, the partner of your nepos is also a nepos. They're also pointing out that she did everything required of her (that her actions were "within the rules", as politicians love to say) - and she did. But what was required wasn't much - basicly to declare her interest - and she certainly didn't do more. For example, she still received papers on the appointment, rather than delegating the decision, and she did not exclude herself from Cabinet committee discussions. If an interest is strong enough to declare, it certainly seems strong enough to take those measures - that's what being seen to uphold the highest ethical standards means. But hey, I'm just a pleb, not a Cabinet Minister, so clearly my ethical understanding is deficient.

What Mahuta did was no different to what other Ministers have done, in this government and its predecessors. While the opposition are happy to use those actions as a convenient weapon, they are basicly accepted by our political class. And that I think says something rather unpleasant about the values of that class. While loudly declaring that they oppose corruption, they are in fact happy to accept it and perpetrate it, handing over government jobs to their friends and former colleagues, forking out honours to donors, and so on. None of this is done for envelopes stuffed with cash (well, except for the honours) - its all by personal relationships. It's cosyism, and its not acceptable.

Which brings me to Mahuta's real problem here, the thing which shows corrupt intent: she "suggested" her relative for the job:

Government minister Nanaia Mahuta put her young relative Waimirirangi Ormsby on a list of candidates for a paid appointment to the working group that produced the He Puapua report, documents released to the Herald under the provisions of the OIA indicate.


The briefing document of May 28, 2019, prepared for Mahuta, stated: "We ask that you consider the range of potential appointees, and select a total of five individuals, who you wish to put forward for appointment. When you have selected the individuals you wish to appoint, the next stage of the process is for us to confirm their availability and willingness to be appointed."

It appears that a long-list of names was attached to the briefing but was redacted. The briefing also noted: "you have previously identified a number of potential appointees you would like to consider".

Again, I'm just a pleb, not a Cabinet Minister, but to my ethical understanding, sitting on the appointment committee considering a candidate you have "suggested" is a clear ethical no-no. Not to mention a slam-dunk case of pre-determination for anyone who wants to argue it.

I've seen a number of dodgy appointments over the years, and every single one of them has happened like this: the Minister "suggests" someone, giving a clear steer to officials as to who they want appointed and short-circuiting any consideration of merit. Some of those appointments have been of people who would clearly have made the shortlist on their merits had they applied rather than been shoulder-tapped. But they are all tainted by the manner of their appointment, and the appointees tarnished by it.

There is a simple and obvious solution to this: Ministers just shouldn't "suggest" people for jobs. Maybe we should even be requiring that the candidates considered by Ministers be anonymised, to reduce the possibility of favourtism. But then I guess Ministers wouldn't be able to reward cronies with plum positions or stack government boards with their own people, and instead we'd just have to live with people appointed on merit. And obviously, that would be terrible.