The importance of transparency

The Judith Collins and David Cunliffe issues over the last two weeks highlight the importance of transparency in politics. A lack of transparency has proven to be highly embarrassing – and career threatening – for both Collins and Cunliffe.

Collins failed to reveal having a dinner and a lunch with people connected to Oravida, a business run by a personal friend ,and her husband is a director of the company.  She didn’t mention them in her cabinet report of the trip and she didn’t tell the Prime Minister about the meal engagements until Tuesday.

As is common it’s not what Collins originally did that has caused the most trouble, it’s the arrogant and inadequate way Collins dealt with the story as it came out that is deemed serious enough by some that she should resign. Journalists and Prime Ministers have a strong dislike of information being withheld from them.

Collins claimed the dinner was a private occasion, but a Minister travelling overseas on Government business is representing the country at all times.

The solution is simple – full transparency. Ministers should include all engagements in their reports, nothing can be claimed as totally private. And they should detail any potential conflicts of interest. They’d be wise to do likewise in New Zealand for any engagements where they could be seen to be potentially acting as a minister.

Collins said on Campbell Live last night she would now be very wary and would include everything in her reports.

Cunliffe had a “week from hell” largely due to not being open and fully honest about the use of two trusts. Both Cunliffe and Collins have been stung by “dishonesty by omission”, they didn’t reveal important information up front.

Cunliffe was late filing advice to the register of pecuniary interests about an investment trust (as did other MPs, seemingly prompted by the revelation David Shearer had an undeclared US bank account). The default position for any MP should be to disclose anything that could possibly be seen as a pecuniary interest.

And Cunliffe hadn’t revealed that he had run a secret donations trust when he ran for the Labour leadership. He said it complied with rules, but it failed a hypocrisy test. If it had been known during the leadership contest it may have affected support for Cunliffe, but he should have either been open about using a trust or not used the secrecy of a trust.

Politicians are wary of revealing things in case information is used against them by opponents. But if opponents discover information that had been secret or not divulged the risks are greater. And the risk escalates if MPs deliberately try to keep things secret when they are asked about them.

Both Collins and Cunliffe should have learnt harsh lessons and their careers have been put on notice.

The importance of transparency should be very apparent to them now, and to all MPs. There may be justification for keeping some things secret but that should be in special circumstances only, and certainly not when trusts and businesses of friends are involved.

Disclosing things up front is far less risky than being found out. Transparency should be a top priority for MPs.


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