|Are our ethical standards in politics dropping? Recently there have been several appointments made by Government and related agencies that have raised questions about conflicts of interest or about whether correct procedures have been followed.
However, not all scrutiny and criticisms are welcomed or embraced. Sometimes those that raise questions about politicians and officials are charged with nit-picking, points-scoring, scandalmongering, or even various forms of prejudice.
And yet, by scrutinising those in power, and taking seriously even the most minor of lapses of ethics or rule-breaking, we are best able to ensure that our system of public life is as honest as possible. So, it’s important to keep an eye on any apparent trends of increasing integrity violations.
The Matthew Tukaki mini-scandal
The most recent government appointment controversy has been about Matthew Tukaki’s role as head of the panel advising on reform of Oranga Tamariki. It turns out that Tukaki’s CV and claimed attributes were less than accurate, and that Government never actually checked these claims before appointing him.
Kelvin Davis, the Minister for Oranga Tamariki, has responded to this revelation by explaining that he already knew the candidate, and “we just trusted in what they had done, and I’d heard about the stuff he’d done apparently overseas. He was also the head of the Māori Council”. In response, the New Zealand Māori Council disputed the claim that Tukaki was ever their head.
Davis has also raised whether racism is behind the criticism of Tukaki: “He’s being condemned for being highly successful and some people don’t like that. Some people, don’t like the uppity Māori but I can’t fault his work”.
The farcical mini-scandal has continued, with fresh revelations from 1News last on Monday that although Tukaki was being paid $1000 a day for his services to Oranga Tamariki he had also erroneously billed and been paid an extra $60,000. And this week Tukaki was appointed as the Director of the Suicide Prevention Office.
The Nanaia Mahuta allegations
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For months now there have been allegations swirling around social media about senior Cabinet minister Nanaia Mahuta and the fact that members of her wider family have obtained various government contracts and appointments. There are no actual allegations of any unlawful activity, but just a general suggestion of nepotism.
The fact that the Ministry of the Environment has recently launched an internal inquiry into some of its appointments and the agency’s processes shows that the allegations probably do merit further public discussion.
One of the allegations relates to the Three Waters reforms that Mahuta is controversially pushing through Parliament at the moment. At the same time, Mahuta’s younger sister, Tipa Mahuta, has been made chair of the Māori Advisory Group that will control the new water regulator, Taumata Arowai. This role is arguably going to be the most powerful in the Three Waters configuration, and she will have an indirect influence on how each individual new water entity operates.
Tipa Mahuta is already a powerful figure in government, local government and in Te Ao Māori – she is co-chair of the new Māori Health Authority, co-chair of the Waikato River Authority, and also a Waikato Regional Councillor.
Other Mahuta family members have also received appointments. Recently the Ministry for the Environment has established a Māori advisory rōpū on waste management, which is researching a mātauranga Māori framework on waste. Of the five members of this, one is Mahuta’s husband Gannin Ormsby, and two are other members of his family, Tamoko Ormsby and Waimirirangi Ormsby.
But there are no allegations that any ministers have been involved in these appointments. And the Environment Ministry went out of its way to ensure that the appointments were made correctly.
Perceptions of conflicts of interest
Nonetheless, some argue that there is a pattern building up of appointments that cause concern. Mahuta’s husband has also been awarded a number of other grants. For example, his consultancy firm has received a $28,300 contract from the Ministry of Māori Development “to deliver a series of workshops, wānanga and excursions for 40 rangatahi” in the Waikato concerned with wellbeing and the environment. Although this occurred while Mahuta was an Associate Minister of Māori Development, accountability for such decisions rested with the main minister, Willie Jackson.
More recently, it has emerged that Ormsby’s firm won a contract of $73,000 for arranging hui and workshops for Kāinga Ora.
Some defenders of Mahuta and her family have raised the question of whether racism is involved in the allegations against her. Certainly, John Tamihere has been quick to raise ethnicity as a factor. When the Herald ran a story about Mahuta’s appointments, he directed his response to the newspaper: “It’s got fix its game up and it’s got to get more integrity and credibility and start calling out its own white folk for conflicts of interest and corruption rather than focusing on just Māori because there’s no evidence Nanaia had any connectivity to any of those decisions. It was just a dirty little allegation.”
Others have also defended Mahuta. Newstalk ZB’s Jason Walls has downplayed the allegations, saying “The reality is New Zealand is small. Conflicts like this happen pretty regularly.”
Similarly, in reporting on the allegations, Newshub’s Isobel Ewing concluded in Mahuta’s defence that such contracts are just inevitable because “New Zealand is a small place [and] Te Ao Māori is even smaller.” She also defended Mahuta by suggesting that critics might have bad motivations in raising the appointments: “As long as any conflicts are dealt with by the book [there is] no issue. Just an opportunity for attempted political point-scoring.”
Mahuta herself has responded to allegations of nepotism by saying: “I’ve got a talented whanau. Conflicts have been declared, managed appropriately, and in accordance with the Cabinet Manual.”
The problem is that the Cabinet Manual also makes it clear that just following the rules isn’t enough, and that ministers need to ensure that there are no perceptions of conflicts of interests, which it notes can be just as bad as actual conflicts of interest.
This means that although it might be understandable that Mahuta takes her husband on various ministerial trips, that he engages with various government officials working with his wife, and that he engages in some of her ministerial roles, in the end, this can create rather blurry lines.
It’s definitely the role of the media and the parliamentary opposition to put forward the difficult questions about these lines. Hence, when Judith Collins’ links to her husband’s Oravida company were revealed, the now Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson raised the perception of a conflict of interest and correctly claimed that “Ministers have to be up front… Perception matters”.
Finally, when National was in power in 2012, the Ministry of Education gave a very senior role to Apryll Parata, the sister of the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata. Concern was expressed by the then Labour Education spokesperson, who warned: “There is a perceived conflict of interest. People will draw all sorts of conclusions given the proximity of the appointment.” And that spokesperson was Nanaia Mahuta.