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Inconsistency reflects poorly on the Prime Minister’s judgement

Chris Hipkins: Harsh on Nash, Mild on Allan (One News Screen Grab)

Peter Dunne
Wellington, April 6, 2023

Something is remiss in the way Ministers are being reminded of the potential conflict between their private interests and their public responsibilities if recent circumstances are anything to go by.

The Cabinet Manual is the “primary authority on the conduct of Cabinet government” and “provides authoritative guidance” on how Ministers should operate.

It requires a confidential annual meeting between the Cabinet Office and each Minister to discuss their situation, and how any potential conflicts of interest might be managed. It also makes clear that the primary role of a Minister is setting the policy direction for their portfolio and securing the necessary funding for those initiatives in the annual Budget round.

While Ministers are accountable to Parliament and the Prime Minister for the overall performance of their department, they are not directly responsible for that department’s operational decisions which are taken to give effect to the government’s policies. And Ministers must always ensure the separation of powers between the Executive branch of government (the Cabinet) and the Judiciary (the Courts and law enforcement agencies) is maintained.

The Cabinet Manual also makes it clear that Ministers cannot intercede on behalf of the family or close associates on official matters of interest to them, nor can they promote family members for official appointments, or use any information they gain through their Ministerial roles in a way that gives special benefit to any external groups.

It is all prudent common sense, really. However, recent Ministerial practice suggests that the processes by which the Cabinet Office advises Ministers each year about their responsibilities and managing any potential conflicts are not being taken as seriously as they have been previously. There is also an emerging view among some Ministers that in these days of feelings- rather than rules-based politics, these rules and conventions do not really apply to them, and that they can best judge for themselves how to manage such situations.

The circumstances surrounding both disgraced former Minister Stuart Nash and now Minister Kiri Allan suggest at best a cavalier disregard for the provisions of the Cabinet Manual regarding their own situations. Nash’s transgressions have been well-aired, and do not require repetition. He has been dismissed by the Prime Minister and is planning to leave politics altogether.

But Allan’s situation is somewhat different and ongoing. Her breach was to make remarks that appeared critical of Radio New Zealand for not having promoted her fiancée at the function marking her fiancée’s departure from the organisation. Allan later claimed that the remarks were made in a personal capacity and apologised to the Prime Minister for them.

Peter Dunne (Getty Images)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disingenuous excuse

This is a frankly disingenuous excuse. Allan is the Minister of Justice and an experienced public lawyer, so should understand the clear provisions of the Cabinet Manual regarding promoting family interests, better than most in Parliament.

Her claim that she made her remarks in a personal capacity at a private function implies a personal naivety that does not wash either. As an intelligent person, she knew full well what she was doing, and what the impact would be. It is hard to see that her remarks, no matter how strongly they were personally felt, made in the presence of board members, were anything more than a deliberate shot across the bows of Radio New Zealand.

Radio New Zealand is a public entity, with statutory autonomy regarding editorial opinion and staffing. Any comment by a Minister in any public setting that is either a direct or implied interference in that autonomy or an attempt to promote the interests of family, however obliquely, is a breach of the Cabinet Manual provisions, as egregious as those that led to the downfall of Stuart Nash.

Of particular concern is the inconsistent and reluctant approach of the Prime Minister. He was very slow to act decisively on the Nash case, only doing so when the mounting evidence made it impossible for him to ignore the situation any longer.

Poor judgement

By contrast, his rebuke to Allan was extraordinarily mild and smacked of differing standards. While it is perfectly understandable that he would have been extremely reluctant to stand aside another Minister for breach of Cabinet Manual standards with just a few months to go before the election, the inconsistency is inexcusable and ultimately reflects poorly on his judgment.

The Cabinet Manual makes it clear that all Ministers are directly accountable to the Prime Minister for their performance and conduct, and that he is accountable to Parliament for the overall performance of his government. He cannot, therefore, brush aside the lapses of conduct that we have seen in recent weeks as having nothing to do with him, the way he seems intent on doing. Nor, in fairness to his Ministers, or his own personal credibility, can he be seen to be applying different standards to different Ministers, the way he has been.

The Prime Minister has commissioned a review of the Cabinet Manual to upgrade and strengthen the provisions around the management of conflicts of interest. That is all very well but as the Cabinet Manual is already explicit on this point the review risks looking like window-dressing for election purposes. What is required right now is for its provisions to be upheld.

All of which comes back to how seriously Ministers are following the Cabinet Manual provisions. In light of the Nash and Allan incidents, and to restore confidence that Ministers do understand and will abide by the rules, it might now be time for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary to jointly meet each Minister to assess their individual situations and identify any potential conflicts likely to emerge over the balance of the government’s term, well before they arise.

At the very least, this would stop the Prime Minister from being caught on the hop by the conduct of Ministers who have not comprehended the Cabinet Manual provisions, or worse, think that they can ignore them.

Peter Dunne was a Minister of the Crown under the Labour and National-led governments from December 1999 to September 2017. He lives in Wellington and writes a weekly Column.

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