OPINION: A ministry investigation shows that concerns about perceived conflicts of interest are not going away — no matter what the mainstream media says.
History is littered with confident assessments that made people look extremely foolish soon afterwards. A famous example came just before the 1929 sharemarket crash when economist Irving Fisher proclaimed: “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
Watching Newshub’s Isobel Ewing effectively advise the nation last week there’s “nothing to see here” in the gathering storm over Nanaia Mahuta’s apparent conflicts of interest made it difficult not to think of Fisher and other short-sighted sages.
Ewing’s rush to judgment seemed, at best, premature. She was reporting on Environment Minister David Parker’s announcement that the ministry would hold an internal inquiry into the appointment of Nanaia Mahuta’s husband and two members of her extended family to a five-member, public-sector working group in waste management.
The inquiry, Parker said, would identify “areas of improvement”.
His statement was made in reply to a written parliamentary question by National’s public service spokesman, Simeon Brown, who welcomed the inquiry as showing “why it is important National has been asking questions about this appointment process and the perceived conflict of interest which exists”.
Brown, Paul Goldsmith and David Seymour have lodged a slew of written questions for ministers to answer regarding the appointment of members of Mahuta’s extended family to the waste advisory group, as well as that of Tipa Mahuta, Nanaia’s younger sister, to the chair of Te Puna: the Māori Advisory Group, which advises the water regulator Taumata Arowai.
After having briefly interviewed Simeon Brown, David Seymour, Willie Jackson and Chris Finlayson, Ewing decided the questions raised about the waste advisory group by the Opposition MPs were a beat-up. She concluded her piece by asserting:
“The Ministry for the Environment is now reviewing its process of appointing experts and, as for accusations of conflicts, New Zealand is a small place [and] Te Ao Māori is even smaller."
“As long as any conflicts are dealt with by the book [there is] no issue. Just an opportunity for attempted political point-scoring.”
This is an astonishing assertion for a journalist to make — although it is certainly what the government wants voters to think.
The Cabinet Manual makes it very plain that a perceived conflict of interest can be just as damaging as an actual conflict. It suggests various ways ministers should handle such conflicts but warns: “Public perception is a very important factor,“ and, “Appearances and propriety can be as important as actual conflicts of interest.”
Ewing is incorrect to imply that managing a conflict, however scrupulously, automatically removes or neutralises it. No matter how carefully a minister has followed the rules, public opinion is the final arbiter of how damaging conflicts of interest — actual or perceived — turn out to be.
Still, Ewing can take comfort that she is not alone in blithely dismissing concerns about a perceived conflict of interest. A fortnight ago, when Newstalk ZB’s chief political reporter, Jason Walls, asked Mahuta directly about the appointments, she replied: “I’ve got a talented whanau. Conflicts have been declared, managed appropriately, and in accordance with the Cabinet Manual.”
Reporting this exchange to radio host Heather du Plessis-Allan, Walls cheerfully told her: “The reality is New Zealand is small. Conflicts like this happen pretty regularly.”
Du Plessis-Allan was obviously taken aback that he would pass the matter off so nonchalantly: “I think this is being downplayed quite significantly by Nanaia Mahuta and probably by the Beehive as well,” she said firmly.
Environment ministry documents record that Mahuta’s husband, Gannin Ormsby, and two other members of the Ormsby family — husband and wife Tamoko Ormsby and Waimirirangi Ormsby — were appointed in 2020 to the waste strategy group without the roles being advertised. The five members of the group were to be paid $1000 a day.
The ministry acknowledged the appointment of Gannin Ormsby presented “a major appearance risk” given the “direct source procurement approach” — and the fact he was married to Nanaia Mahuta, “who is not only an MP and Cabinet minister but also an Associate Minister for the Environment (but with no involvement in waste and resource efficiency matters).”
The ministry decided, however, that the risk was “manageable”.
The most comprehensive account of all this information — with screen shots of official documents attached — has not appeared in the mainstream media but on the Twitter account of a mysterious tweeter who goes by the name of Thomas Cranmer.
Cranmer — who has a lawyerly eye for links between complex documents — is not alleging anything illegal has occurred, but has questioned whether the appointments have been handled correctly and transparently.
Cranmer records, for instance, official documents showing — “in the interests of full transparency” — that Mahuta turned up “briefly” with her husband at a breakfast in Taupiri in September 2020 as part of a two-day hui to “introduce the Māori experts to the ministry’s work programme on waste and explore the possible role they might play in the waste strategy project”.
He argues the visit was “inappropriate” no matter whether Mahuta’s visit was made in a personal or official capacity. At the very least, Mahuta’s presence at the breakfast alongside her husband demonstrated, in his view, very poor political judgment.
Observing Ormsby in close proximity to his wife would have made it obvious to officials just how direct his ministerial connections were.
Furthermore, he has questioned whether appearing at the breakfast with her husband is consistent with the claim made by Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson in Parliament that Mahuta is “scrupulous in the way in which she manages conflicts of interest and adheres to the Cabinet manual”.
Cranmer notes that the ministry’s own documents acknowledge the appointments were “high risk” because of the contractors’ close family relationships with Mahuta.
In fact, the appointment of Gannin Ormsby was considered so risky it had to be approved by Vicky Robertson, the Chief Executive and Secretary for the Ministry for the Environment.
What we are yet to find out is whether Jacinda Ardern exercised oversight of the appointments to the waste group herself. However, that seems likely given the Cabinet Manual states: “The Prime Minister should be advised in writing of conflicts that are of particular concern or that will require ongoing management.”
In the end, public concerns about ministers’ conflicts of interest are always going to end up on the Prime Minister’s desk because the ultimate responsibility in overseeing their management lies with the leader.
Last week, Ardern said that she “stood by” her minister, adding: ”I’m confident the process has been followed.”
Given Mahuta’s pivotal role in Ardern’s government — not least because of her obdurate stance on her deeply unpopular Three Waters project — there is obviously a lot at stake for both her and the Prime Minister as public disquiet grows over the various appointments of Mahuta’s family to taxpayer-funded positions.