As we all try to make sense of pressuring emails and undeclared shares, can't we agree that it's time for some real transparency?

I must admit it is surprising to hear Gerry Brownlee as point man for National's attacks on Winston Peters and Helen Clark today. Brownlee says the emails further discredit New Zealand First and Labour, and he has a point that they don't reflect well on Winston Peters; but nothing I've read today confirms corruption as Rodney Hide alleges.

The crux seems to be in an April 17, 2007 memo from Ministry of Foreign Affairs Chief Executive Simon Murdoch to Peter's advisers, in which Murdoch said Mr Peters "wants to appoint an honorary consul in Monaco. It is a distinguished expat of his choice."

It's those words "wants" and "of his choice" that are most significant. Given that Peters had received a $100,000 donation from Glenn back at the end of 2005, he should not have been advocating – or even have been seen to be advocating – for someone who had helped him financially. Of course Peters still denies knowing about the donation and insists the money was "legal expenses" not his personal gain, but the privileges committee found otherwise, saying he had "some knowledge" of the donation.

Given that Peters had pushed for Glenn and knew about the donation, there is a conflict of interest and Peters was out of bounds. But as long as he denies knowledge of the donation, he retains wriggle room. And to be fair to him it must be noted that once MFAT officials decided there was no need for a consul in Monaco, he let the matter rest. If he had tried to urge the officials to change their minds or over-ridden them, the case would be much more damning. But these papers don't show that. If Glenn was looking for a favour, he didn't get one; at least, not the result he was wanting.

All of this though reflects as badly on Glenn as it does on Peters. The men who were at each other's throats weeks ago now have the same vested interest of denying any link between the donation and the Monaco appointment. But those who are damning Peters must surely do the same to Glenn. If the combination of the donation and pushing for the appointment together amount to unethical behaviour by Peters, don't they amount to the same by Glenn?

Peters claims he was simply trying to hurry along tardy ministry officials. That could explain some of the pressure mentioned in the emails, but the point that he was said to "want" Glenn appointed undermines that.

So yes, what these emails appear to tell us is that Peters asked questions on behalf of a major donor and went further, encouraging his appointment. But it is still second-hand information and the context needs to be explained. While public servants don't like to get drawn into politics, the only way to be clear about whether these were words pressuring officials to choose Glenn or merely pressure to hurry up, is to hear from Simon Murdoch. They are his words that are hanging Peters today and only his explanation can clarify the situation.

I don't see huge trouble for Clark in this. The attacks in her direction seem to be based more on politics than fact. She has said that she was in no position to chastise Peters in February because of conflicting information over the donation. Glenn told her he had made a donation, Peters said not. It seems now that she knew, and was concerned, about Peters' lobbying on Glenn's behalf. But that fact doesn't seem to add anything to what we already knew. Clark had concerns in February, raised it personally with both men, and got conflicting information. What I've never understood from people criticising her is what they think she should have done next. Accuse one of them of lying? Go public with no clear evidence? Get someone to spy into New Zealand First's bank accounts? Come on... She seems to have taken a watching brief. A passive approach, sure, but hardly unethical. If Peters had acted to appoint Glenn, I'm sure we all hope that she would have stepped in. But given MFAT stopped the appointment dead in its tracks, she was never tested.

It's remarkable, though, that Gerry Brownlee is trying to take the high moral ground on this. Yesterday The Standard broke the news that he had asked questions about Contact Energy in the House while he held shares in the company. Brownlee has brushed the story aside, saying he only had a few hundred shares. But size isn't the point here. He asked questions about Contact when he was a shareholder and did not declare his conflict of interest.

According to Parliament's Standing Orders, he should have declared his interest.

166 Declaration of financial interest
(1) A member must, before participating in the consideration of any
item of business, declare any financial interest that the member
has in that business.

Now, there's no evidence of nefarious intent by Brownlee or of profit from his questions. As with Peters, there's no evidence of corruption. But there is evidence that he broke Parliament's rules, as Peters' did. Is Brownlee really one to condemn then?

And why is it so hard for politicians to keep to the rules, minimal as they are? All he had to do was say, "I own some Contact shares, but I'd still like to know why...". Or to get one of his colleagues to ask the Contact questions. Or sell them. It's easy. Here, I'll do it. I own some Contact shares. I do, really. Easy, huh?

We really do need some new rules requiring full disclosure of MPs' financial interests. If they seek to serve and to control taxpayer funds, they need to be transparent with us all.

Comments (8)

by Graeme Edgeler on October 29, 2008
Graeme Edgeler

You quote standing order 166(1):

166 Declaration of financial interest
(1) A member must, before participating in the consideration of any item of business, declare any financial interest that the member has in that business.

You might also have quoted Standing Order 165(1):

165 Financial interests
(1) A financial interest is a direct financial benefit that might accrue to a member personally, or to any trust, company or other business entity in which the member holds an appreciable interest, as a result of the outcome of the House’s consideration of a particular item of business.

And for that matter, Speaker's Rulings 71/4 and 71/5

  • A member does not have a ‘‘direct pecuniary interest’’ (financial interest) in a question merely because the member is a director of a company which provides mortgage broking services for a company which may own land affected by the proposal at issue.
    1977, Vol. 411, pp. 1133–4. Jack.
  • The fact that an amendment might open up a business opportunity for a number of companies in which members have an interest is not a direct
    financial benefit. Such a business opportunity might or might not eventuate from a particular clause or bill becoming law. The matter is entirely speculative.
    1998, Vol. 574, p. 14221. Kidd.

It's not nearly as clear cut as you imply.

by Deemac on October 29, 2008
Deemac

well, the Winston Peters case wasn't nearly as clear cut as Brownlee implies!

by Ian MacKay on October 29, 2008
Ian MacKay

John Key says in the current Listener page 19 in relation to his Tranzrail shares (paraphrased) "It doesn't matter if I had 1 share or a million shares. They should have been declared and I didn't leading to a "perception of conflict." Where does that leave Gerry?

by Graeme Edgeler on October 29, 2008
Graeme Edgeler

Looking bad, but probably with a better understanding of the requirements of Standing Orders than John Key.

by Tim Watkin on October 30, 2008
Tim Watkin

Graeme, the second speaker's ruling may come into play, but I don't see the others as relevant. Either way I don't think any of those other rules undermine the very clear requirement of standing order 166 (1). And I don't see why it's so hard. You could do it in the same breath as you ask your question. As a voter, I think I have the right to know if an MP has a vested interest in any question he/she asks or statement he/she makes in the House. That's the arena where the public good matters most and we have the right to demand full disclosure of any MP.

by Graeme Edgeler on October 30, 2008
Graeme Edgeler

As a voter (and taxpayer and citizen :-) ), I agree that we should know. I agree that we have the right to demand full disclosure of any MP. And it wouldn't be hard. I just disagree (or at least have doubts) that the Standing Orders actually require full disclosure in this situation.

The very clear requirement of SO 166(1) is to "before participating in the consideration of any item of business, declare any financial interest that the member has in that business."

The questions thus to be asked include:

  • does asking a question constitute "participation in the consideration of an item of business"?
  • Is there a financial interest?

Q1 is doubtful.

Q2, in determining whether there is a financial interest, requires that we turn to SO 165(1), and ask:

  • Might some direct financial benefit accrue to Brownlee as a result of the question he is asking? or
  • Did Mr Brownlee hold an appreciable interest in Contact Energy, and if so would a direct financial benefit accrue to it as a result of the question he is asking?
  • Does the House hearing an answer to a question as constitute a result of the outcome of the House's consideration of an item of business.

Q3 hasn't been asked, let alone answered.

Q4 (in the alternative to 3) hasn't been asked, and in any event Brownlee denies that his shareholding was appreciable.

Q5 is doubtful.

The very narrow definition of financial interest, and the very narrow set of circumstances in which the obligation to disclose such an interest meant that, for example, in the consideration of the validating legislation arising from the Auditor-General's report, those individual members who had been found to have overspent did not have a direct financial interest in the passage of the law.

If voting in favour of a bill the passage of which will "obviate recovery action being initiated in respect of any unauthorised payments that have been made" (McGee, Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand (3rd Ed) p 463) does not amount to a member having a financial interest in the considertation of an item of business, and if voting down an amendment (from National) that would have made them personally liable for their mis-spending isn't a financial interest in an item of business, then one has to conclude that the requirement of SO 166(1) do not containt the "very clear cut requirement" you make out.

It should. I definitely want to know if a member asking a question has shares in the company being asked about. I want to know how much individual MPs have been found to have overspent when they're voting for a law to make their personaly overspending (and that of party machines with which they are associated) lawful. However, the standing orders do not require it.

by Tim Watkin on October 31, 2008
Tim Watkin

The narrowness of the definition as you describe it is interesting. And surprising.

I'm not sure I accept that Q1 and Q5 are doubtfil. If asking a question and receiving an answer in the House isn't "participation in the consideration of an item of business", then what is? Surely initiating discussion of an item in parliament is at the very least participation.

I think you're going beyond standing orders when you bring in the issue of whether Brownlee's interest is "appreciable" or not. There doesn't seem to be any quantitative issue in the orders. The order demands declaration of "any interest". You either have an interest or you don't, and again, surely shares at very least constitute an interest.

But your beyond those details, your wider point is well made. What seems to be a clear and succinct standing order may have ambiguities it shouldn't. It seems to me that in business there is a simple expectation to declare interests even when the risk of corruption is minimal, as there often is in journalism. It should be even greater in parliament. These are lawmakers after all, and they should be either above all or transparent. For a start, that means openly declaring all interests in family trusts and not asking questions where there may be some vested interest in your asking that question.

Consider one question from Brownlee in 2003:

Gerry Brownlee: Is the Minister aware that similar comments from the Prime Minister last week wiped millions of dollars off the capital value of Contact Energy; can he tell us whether he has discussed those threats with the Minister for State Owned Enterprises; and can he also tell us how bringing generators to their knees helps the current crisis?

That question goes directly to share price, something he has a direct interest in. He is also taking a political position critical of government for having presided over that drop in share price. Parliamentary debate is about the good of the nation. We might give Brownlee the benefit of the doubt in this case and reasonably say it's a minor point, but the principle is that he should not be asking questions that involve his personal finances. And we should be determined in defence of such a principle.

by Graeme Edgeler on October 31, 2008
Graeme Edgeler

Asking a question is certainly participating in the business of the House, it's the "consideration of any item of business" that creates my doubt. This really seems to be directed at discussion of legislative change (e.g. a vote on a bill) or similar. It would also extend to a select committee inquiry into a matter and a number of other things, but I'm doubtful that asking questions in the House is among them. I want to be, but I've still got my doubts.

The question of whether Brownlee had an "appreciable" interest doesn't arise if we're talking about an interest Brownlee had. It arises if we decide that Brownlee doesn't have an interest, but, say, Contact Energy does. If it is Contact which has the interest, we then have to ask whether Brownlee's shareholding was "appreciable" (a term which arises in the standing order).

In relation to the specific question of Brownlee's you mention, you still have to ask "what financial benefit might have accrued" to Brownlee as a result of its being asked. It shouldn't be the question, but I believe it currently is. How could the price Brownlee could receive for his shares increase as a result of that question. If it couldn't, there's no financial benefit in terms of standing orders, and nothing to declare, as disappointing a result as that may be.

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