Bryce Edwards: Government appointments under scrutiny

Bryce Edwards: Government appointments under scrutiny

Are our ethical standards in politics dropping? Recently there have been several appointments made by Government and related agencies that have raised questions about conflicts of interest or about whether correct procedures have been followed.

However, not all scrutiny and criticisms are welcomed or embraced. Sometimes those that raise questions about politicians and officials are charged with nit-picking, points-scoring, scandalmongering, or even various forms of prejudice.

And yet, by scrutinising those in power, and taking seriously even the most minor of lapses of ethics or rule-breaking, we are best able to ensure that our system of public life is as honest as possible. So, it’s important to keep an eye on any apparent trends of increasing integrity violations.

The Matthew Tukaki mini-scandal

The most recent government appointment controversy has been about Matthew Tukaki’s role as head of the panel advising on reform of Oranga Tamariki. It turns out that Tukaki’s CV and claimed attributes were less than accurate, and that Government never actually checked these claims before appointing him.

Kelvin Davis, the Minister for Oranga Tamariki, has responded to this revelation by explaining that he already knew the candidate, and “we just trusted in what they had done, and I’d heard about the stuff he’d done apparently overseas. He was also the head of the Māori Council”. In response, the New Zealand Māori Council disputed the claim that Tukaki was ever their head.

Davis has also raised whether racism is behind the criticism of Tukaki: “He’s being condemned for being highly successful and some people don’t like that. Some people, don’t like the uppity Māori but I can’t fault his work”.

The farcical mini-scandal has continued, with fresh revelations from 1News last on Monday that although Tukaki was being paid $1000 a day for his services to Oranga Tamariki he had also erroneously billed and been paid an extra $60,000. And this week Tukaki was appointed as the Director of the Suicide Prevention Office.

The Nanaia Mahuta allegations

For months now there have been allegations swirling around social media about senior Cabinet minister Nanaia Mahuta and the fact that members of her wider family have obtained various government contracts and appointments. There are no actual allegations of any unlawful activity, but just a general suggestion of nepotism.

The fact that the Ministry of the Environment has recently launched an internal inquiry into some of its appointments and the agency’s processes shows that the allegations probably do merit further public discussion.

One of the allegations relates to the Three Waters reforms that Mahuta is controversially pushing through Parliament at the moment. At the same time, Mahuta’s younger sister, Tipa Mahuta, has been made chair of the Māori Advisory Group that will control the new water regulator, Taumata Arowai. This role is arguably going to be the most powerful in the Three Waters configuration, and she will have an indirect influence on how each individual new water entity operates.

Tipa Mahuta is already a powerful figure in government, local government and in Te Ao Māori – she is co-chair of the new Māori Health Authority, co-chair of the Waikato River Authority, and also a Waikato Regional Councillor.

Other Mahuta family members have also received appointments. Recently the Ministry for the Environment has established a Māori advisory rōpū on waste management, which is researching a mātauranga Māori framework on waste. Of the five members of this, one is Mahuta’s husband Gannin Ormsby, and two are other members of his family, Tamoko Ormsby and Waimirirangi Ormsby.

But there are no allegations that any ministers have been involved in these appointments. And the Environment Ministry went out of its way to ensure that the appointments were made correctly.

Perceptions of conflicts of interest

Nonetheless, some argue that there is a pattern building up of appointments that cause concern. Mahuta’s husband has also been awarded a number of other grants. For example, his consultancy firm has received a $28,300 contract from the Ministry of Māori Development “to deliver a series of workshops, wānanga and excursions for 40 rangatahi” in the Waikato concerned with wellbeing and the environment. Although this occurred while Mahuta was an Associate Minister of Māori Development, accountability for such decisions rested with the main minister, Willie Jackson.

More recently, it has emerged that Ormsby’s firm won a contract of $73,000 for arranging hui and workshops for Kāinga Ora.

Some defenders of Mahuta and her family have raised the question of whether racism is involved in the allegations against her. Certainly, John Tamihere has been quick to raise ethnicity as a factor. When the Herald ran a story about Mahuta’s appointments, he directed his response to the newspaper: “It’s got fix its game up and it’s got to get more integrity and credibility and start calling out its own white folk for conflicts of interest and corruption rather than focusing on just Māori because there’s no evidence Nanaia had any connectivity to any of those decisions. It was just a dirty little allegation.”

Others have also defended Mahuta. Newstalk ZB’s Jason Walls has downplayed the allegations, saying “The reality is New Zealand is small. Conflicts like this happen pretty regularly.”

Similarly, in reporting on the allegations, Newshub’s Isobel Ewing concluded in Mahuta’s defence that such contracts are just inevitable because “New Zealand is a small place [and] Te Ao Māori is even smaller.” She also defended Mahuta by suggesting that critics might have bad motivations in raising the appointments: “As long as any conflicts are dealt with by the book [there is] no issue. Just an opportunity for attempted political point-scoring.”

Mahuta herself has responded to allegations of nepotism by saying: “I’ve got a talented whanau. Conflicts have been declared, managed appropriately, and in accordance with the Cabinet Manual.”

The problem is that the Cabinet Manual also makes it clear that just following the rules isn’t enough, and that ministers need to ensure that there are no perceptions of conflicts of interests, which it notes can be just as bad as actual conflicts of interest.

This means that although it might be understandable that Mahuta takes her husband on various ministerial trips, that he engages with various government officials working with his wife, and that he engages in some of her ministerial roles, in the end, this can create rather blurry lines.

It’s definitely the role of the media and the parliamentary opposition to put forward the difficult questions about these lines. Hence, when Judith Collins’ links to her husband’s Oravida company were revealed, the now Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson raised the perception of a conflict of interest and correctly claimed that “Ministers have to be up front… Perception matters”.

Finally, when National was in power in 2012, the Ministry of Education gave a very senior role to Apryll Parata, the sister of the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata. Concern was expressed by the then Labour Education spokesperson, who warned: “There is a perceived conflict of interest. People will draw all sorts of conclusions given the proximity of the appointment.” And that spokesperson was Nanaia Mahuta.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading today on integrity and transparency issues:

1News: NZ Māori Council further distances itself from Matthew Tukaki
Waatea News: Davis defends Tukaki choice
David Farrar: The Mahuta family saga
Sean Plunket (The Platform): Ardern approves Mahuta Cover Up
Jason Walls (Herald): Government gives $140 million worth of subsidies for Avatar sequels so far
Newstalk: Lecturer: Govt needs to be more careful appointing roles relating to child welfare
Ben Espiner (The Platform): Is it ‘misinformation’ when the Government does it?

Robin Martin (Stuff): Council in hot water for lack of transparency over CEO’s absence
Tom Dillane and David Fisher (Herald): TVNZ chairman admits in letter to Broadcasting Minister ‘thorough reference checks were not undertaken’ in Kamahl Santamaria hire


Other items of interest and importance today

Tess McClure (The Guardian): New Zealand faces new Covid wave as experts say moving on from pandemic is ‘wishful thinking’
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says ‘no expectation’ NZ will move to red, questions whether gathering limits would make ‘marked difference’ anyway

1News: NZ won’t move to Red traffic light ‘at this stage’ – Ardern
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): BA.5 may force return to Red
Jamie Morton (Herald): Reopened borders changing shape of NZ’s second wave
RNZ: ‘Significant’ second wave of Omicron may already be here
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): The Covid winter wave is here. What is driving the surge and how can we fight it?
Alexa Cook (Newshub): Covid-19 researcher warns case numbers could reach 25,000 a day, put New Zealand back in red
RNZ: Immunologist Graham Le Gros on rising Omicron cases
Jake McKee (RNZ): What the rise in Omicron cases means, and what you can do
Julia Gabel (Herald): BA.5 expected to become dominant sub-variant in fortnight as case numbers increase
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Herald): It’s time to move on from Covid restrictions(paywalled)
Cate Macintosh (Stuff): Schools hit by Covid-19 and flu ‘just holding on until Friday’ amid new wave of Omicron

Tova O’Brien (Today FM): Govt ignoring Health NZ from day one is the stupidest thing I’ve seen in politics
RNZ: Mental health, wellbeing on the decline in New Zealand – Stats NZ
Michael Morrah (Newshub): General surgeons have ‘grave concerns’ about state of New Zealand’s health workforce
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): Nurses’ exclusion from immigration priority list still puzzling
Hannah Martin (Stuff): A who’s who of the people running New Zealand’s new health system
Ashleigh Yates (Newshub): GPs worried routine and preventative care getting ‘squeezed out’ by wave of winter illnesses
RNZ: Urgent change needed for dental care system for children – experts
Katie Todd (RNZ): GP, National MP Dr Shane Reti fears health reforms won’t help at frontline
Louisa Steyl (Stuff): ‘The health system is always going to be constrained,’ DHB boss says
Sarah Najdek (Stuff): The need for technology to shorten hospital waiting lists

Luke Malpass (Stuff): Why PM Jacinda Ardern has everything to play for during her visit to Australia
Oscar Jackson (Today FM): Advocate urges Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to ‘sit across’ from 501s in detention centres
Jessica Mutch McKay (1News): Ardern playing down expectations on 501 deportee progress
RNZ: Jacinda Ardern plays down prospect of quick 501s solution
Luke Malpass (Stuff): Why the NZ-EU FTA deal could ring in the future for NZ trade negotiations
Jenée Tibshraeny and Claire Trevett (Herald): Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ‘excellent’ to be in Australia – 501s, business and Pacific on the agenda
Fran O’Sullivan (Herald): Jacinda Ardern, Anthony Albanese have plenty to chew over(paywalled)
Damien Venuto (Herald): Why were dairy and meat left out of the EU free trade deal?
Jim Rose (Stuff): Beware of fish-hooks in free trade deals
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Newstalk): If meat and dairy aren’t happy, it’s a rubbish deal
Jayden Holmes (Today FM): New Zealand received ‘very mediocre deal’ at NATO free trade union
Benjamin Felton (Naval News): Australia And New Zealand Are Sending Their Largest Warships To RIMPAC
Herald: Editorial: Urging caution as Nato digs in over Ukraine (paywalled)
Sam Sachdeva and Emanuel Stoakes (Newsroom): NZ to boycott counter-terrorism meeting over Russia, Myanmar roles
Waatea News: Free trade secrecy conflict with tiriti promise

Baz Macdonald (Re:News): NZ CEOs earn up to 88 times more than employees: We crunched the numbers
Brianna Mcilraith (Stuff): Wage power lies in the hands of workers, but maybe not for much longer
Molly Swift (Newshub): Immigration adviser Tuariki Delamere warns businesses in for a shock as immigration changes take effect
Tess Brunton (RNZ): Hospitality bosses say higher pay won’t attract workers: ‘There is just no staff’
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Government defends response to severe staff shortages as hospitality business warns industry in dire straits
Rebecca Macfie (Newsroom): NZ judgment on Uber will resonate worldwide
RNZ: Business confidence drops to lowest since pandemic began
Katie Bradford (1News): Govt considering importing own plasterboard supply
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Newstalk): If Michael Wood won’t say he’s sorry, things won’t change for businesses
Mike Hosking (Newstalk): The pay rises are fine, until the economic reality comes
Ganesh Nana (BusinessDesk): Is an immigration GPS a population policy in disguise?

1News: Woods continues to defend beleaguered KiwiBuild scheme
Imran Ali (Herald): Kāinga Ora spends nearly $10m in Northland on 13 standalone houses (paywalled)
Kelly Makiha (Herald): Kāinga Ora celebrates three new homes for local families
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): Why can’t officials get house price forecasts right?
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): House prices won’t return to being ‘affordable’, Tony Alexander says
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Reserve Bank suggests 9% drop could return house prices to ‘sustainable level’
Rachel Sadler (Newshub): Auckland house prices increased in June, defying expectations
Simon Wilson (Herald): 10 misunderstandings about the villa wars (paywalled)

Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): Willie Jackson’s problem
Mihingarangi Forbes (Newshub): Racism in police poll: 72 pct of Māori say police are racist in some way
Chris Lynch: Academic claims beloved New Zealand children’s book outdated lacks diversity
Ireland Hendry-Tennent and Adam Hollingworth (Newshub): Hairy Maclary author Lynley Dodd responds to academic’s claim book is outdated, lacks diversity
David Farrar: Was Auckland really called Tāmaki Makaurau?
1News: Māori god in Thor about ‘inclusiveness’ on screen – Waititi
Laura Walters (Stuff): Kelvin Davis: Aotearoa ‘not ready’ for compulsory te reo Māori
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): The NZ left are too busy cancelling for woke dogma to help you right now

Mike Yardley (Stuff): Two-horse race for Christchurch mayoralty between big-hearted leaders
Todd Niall (Stuff): ‘Citizen assemblies’ could dramatically shift how Auckland is run as a city
Don Brash: The Serious challenges facing local government
David Farrar: WCC manages to drop below rock bottom

Felix Desmarais (Local Democracy Reporting): Rotorua’s Three Waters rejection: DIA says reform ‘stands up’ to scrutiny, new funding hinted
Stephen Ward (Stuff): Initial results show split views over Three Waters from Hamiltonians
Kirsten Wise (Herald): Govt is ‘overlooking the very nature of water’
David Farrar: Three Waters is more than co-governance