• Ministers Should Not Lie

    A politician who has enthusiastically cultivated an image as “Crusher” Collins will not expect much by way of public sympathy when she comes a cropper. Public sympathy will be in even more limited supply when she is seen to blame everyone but herself for her misfortunes.

    Judith Collins has one loyal supporter, however, in the Prime Minister. Maurice Williamson made, on a single occasion, a naïve mistake and was summarily (and correctly) dismissed. Judith Collins, however, planned, executed and involved others in an elaborate arrangement to use her Ministerial clout to help the business interests of her husband and friends – and she survives.

    The Cabinet Manual is quite clear. It says that “conflicts of interest may arise between Ministers’ personal interests and their public duty because of the influence and power that Ministers exercise”, and that “a conflict of interest may be pecuniary (that is, arising from the Minister’s direct financial interests) or non-pecuniary (concerning, for example, a member of the Minister’s family).”

    It goes on to say that “a conflict may arise if people close to a Minister, such as a Minister’s family, whanau, or close associates, might derive, or be perceived as deriving, some personal, financial, or other benefit from a decision or action by the Minister or the government.”

    It is puzzling that, in the light of these warnings and as the details of the efforts made by Judith Collins to organise a meeting between her husband’s company and a Chinese border official come to light, the Prime Minister does not recognise the inevitability that she cannot remain in office.

    There are two indications as to why that may be. First, John Key – by acknowledging that he knows the name of, and the office held by, the Chinese official who attended the dinner with Oravida, but refusing to reveal that information – has made himself complicit in the deception attempted by Judith Collins.

    Secondly, the fact that, within a few days of obtaining the necessary clearance, Oravida made a $30,000 gift to the National Party (on top of an earlier $56,000) indicates a relationship between the donor and recipient that in another country would be quickly identified as corrupt.

    These failures to maintain the “high standards” John Key claims to have set for his government will no doubt become starkly clear as the conflict of interest implications of the Judith Collins saga unravel. But there are other charges to be laid at the door of the Minister and the Prime Minister.

    No one doubts that the dismissive tone adopted by Judith Collins in explaining her meeting with Oravida as “dropping in for a cup of tea on the way to the airport” was an incongruous misrepresentation, intended to deceive. In ordinary parlance, it would be called a lie.

    The Cabinet Manual surprisingly, makes no reference to lying in the performance of ministerial duties, but this was a deliberate lie designed to give the public an entirely false impression of what had really happened. I have never accepted, as a former politician myself, the easy excuse that “all’s fair in love and war – and politics”. We are entitled to expect, and John Key should insist, that Ministers tell the truth, or at the very least do not deliberately lie.

    The question for John Key is that, if he is serious about “high standards”, how can he allow a proven liar on an important public matter to remain in office?

    Lying to the press and public is one thing; lying to parliament, under the Westminster conventions that apply in our parliament, is quite another. Some of the most notorious ministerial careers – the Profumo case was an example – came to an inglorious end, not because of the original offence but because the Minster lied to parliament about it. Judith Collins will not relish a scrutiny of what she has said in the House.

    There are two further issues which John Key must take seriously. First, Judith Collins has deliberately and unforgivably involved public servants both in the use of her ministerial office to help her friends and in trying to cover her tracks when it was discovered.

    She has blamed her own private office for the confusion caused by her use of her ministerial status for private purposes. She has involved the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a request for an eventually aborted official briefing for what she now claims was a private dinner. And she has involved our Ambassador in Beijing, both in the arrangements for the dinner she had organised for her own purposes and in the attempt to explain that uncomfortable fact away.

    It is a fair bet that Judith Collins has only come clean to the extent that she has because she was advised that the Embassy and other public servants would not allow themselves to be used to confirm an inaccurate account of what had happened.

    And secondly, she has wrongly implicated a reputable journalist, and threatened retaliation against the parliamentary press corps generally, for simply reporting the facts. Does this Muldoonian attitude reflect the “high standards” John Key says he wants? Or are threats to a free press just another price we are expected to pay for the government’s determination to help and protect its friends?

    Bryan Gould

    6 May 2014


  1. Jeremy Callaghan says: May 8, 2014 at 3:16 pmReply

    I wonder in how many countries today this sort of publicly recognised corruption would automatically lead to a resignation or dismissal. Do these somewhat well-mannered conventions still apply or does it depend on the power and influence that the corrupt person can bring to bear? An explanation of falling on a sword would be laughed at in, say, Trinidad and Tobago!

  2. Jeremy Callaghan says: May 8, 2014 at 3:19 pmReply

    Sorry “expectation” at the end