Bryce Edwards: Ardern is right to insist on ethical standards, even on chocolate endorsements

Bryce Edwards: Ardern is right to insist on ethical standards, even on chocolate endorsements

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was right to question Marama Davidson’s endorsement of Whittaker’s chocolate. The rule forbidding ministers from endorsing products or services is a basic protection against corruption. It helps maintain the impartiality of ministers who have enormous individual power when it comes to regulations that directly impact businesses.

Davidson, who is Associate Minister of Housing, purchased a bunch of the Whittaker’s “Creamy Milk” chocolate bars – rebranded for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori as “Miraka Kirīmi” – and posed with them on the steps of Parliament, stating that she loved the company.

Ardern asked the Cabinet Office to remind her Minister of the Cabinet Manual rules, which clearly stipulate “no Minister should endorse in any media any product or service”. Davidson was initially defiant, standing her ground, but eventually relented and edited her social media post to remove the company’s name from her endorsement.

Trivial or serious?

Unsurprisingly in a country in which there is often complacency about corruption or the influence of business in politics, there was much scoffing about the pettiness of the PM’s insistence on ethical standards. To many, an endorsement of a chocolate company was too trivial to get the Green Minister in trouble. One political journalist labelled it “Whittakergate” and evaluated it as “the dumbest political scandal of our time”.

Broadcaster Lloyd Burr protested Ardern’s clampdown on endorsements, saying “It’s an outrageous beat-up that makes me so damned cynical of politics.” Burr argued Ardern had completely overreacted and “like she was the Year 6 classroom monitor, and reported to the head teacher that Greens co-leader Marama Davidson had breached the school rules.”

Even National MP Chris Bishop came to Davidson’s defence saying it was only a “very, very technical breach” of the rules, arguing that something of a blind eye should be turned in this case.

But Ardern did actually need to reassert the rules. It may have been a relatively minor breach of the Cabinet Manual, but it is still a breach. The rule that Ministers shouldn’t get too close to business interests is a good one. The power of capital already plays an outsized influence on political decision-makers, and so for the integrity of the political system there need to be clear guidelines and ethical standards to help prevent corruption, bribery, and nepotism in politics.

In this case, a constitutional rule preventing Ministers from endorsing businesses and their products is a small but significant barrier to politicians cosying up to vested interests.

It might have been “only chocolate” – a product that for some reason gets a free pass in the eyes of many – but Davidson’s actions were a deliberate promotion of a business product and she went out of her way to stage the endorsement in front of the Beehive. The episode has no doubt been a useful advertisement for Whittaker’s.

The importance of preventing a slippery slope of unethical behaviour

The problem is one of slippery slopes and grey areas. Once politicians allow small breaches of ethical rules, it can easily evolve into a culture where greater breaches are made.

Some made the same argument of a “trivial” breach back in 2014 when then Justice Minister Judith Collins was photographed with milk from the Oravida dairy exporting company, for which her husband was a director. At the time, Grant Robertson rightly pursued Collins for breaching the Cabinet Manual rules. And Collins gave her defence: “Shock, horror, I drink milk. I promote New Zealand milk anywhere I go. It’s the finest milk in the world”. But the dairy endorsement eventually played a part in her being sacked as a minister by Prime Minister John Key.

Since then, we have continued to have ministers endorsing companies, so Ardern sending a reminder to her colleagues about the rules is not before time. One of the prime offenders is Stuart Nash, who is often seen endorsing businesses in his electorate. For example, he posted this year: “For good health I always start the day with a glass of warm lemon juice from the Limery.” There are plenty of other examples of ministers in recent governments blatantly promoting businesses, and it appears to be on the increase.

It should also be noted that the Prime Minister herself could be seen as sailing close to the wind in her promotion of designer clothing companies, often accepting free clothes to wear on the international stage. And of course, much of the PM’s overseas travel is about promoting particular New Zealand businesses and their products. She even went on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in the US to endorse the beef products of Silver Fern Farms.

In the end, it’s the role of the Prime Minister to decide what is a breach of the Cabinet Manual rules, and what consequences a minister should face. So don’t expect the PM’s endorsements to stop anytime soon.

Davidson under fire for virtue signalling while failing on homelessness

Some have suggested Davidson’s chocolate antics are a form of virtue signalling – designed to show how progressive she is while doing very little in terms of homelessness, her area of responsibility as minister.

After Davidson’s promotion of Whittaker’s, Newshub looked at her performance in her portfolio, with journalist Imogen Wells reporting, “since getting the role in 2020, Davidson’s issued just eight press releases and presented only three papers to Cabinet – which were joint with others – and introduced zero Bills to parliament to address homelessness.”

When the journalist challenged Davidson on whether she is actually working hard on the homelessness crisis, the politician replied: “Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt. Every single hour, every single day.”

Commentators have drawn attention to her former co-leader James Shaw being rolled from his position after party activists felt he hadn’t done enough in his portfolio. Davidson is regarded by many to have done much less, but to be safer because new Green Party constitutional rules require a co-leader who is Māori and one that is female, and she ticks both boxes.

As to suggestions that Davidson spends more time on social media than she does working on homelessness, the minister replied that social media such as Instagram “is where many of our people are, our communities and people who want to engage with us, that’s where we do a lot of it.” She also pointed out that she had been working on a prevention of violence strategy, which she argued could be seen as equivalent to “100 press releases”.

Given the crisis in housing, especially the rise in homelessness under Davidson’s watch, some on the political left found her focus on promoting chocolate branded with te reo Māori to be symbolic of the Greens’ direction.

Leftwing political commentator Steven Cowan questioned the priorities of the Minister for Homelessness: “It is incongruous, to say the least, that Davidson who has a ministerial brief to assist some of the poorest people in the country, should be promoting a brand of chocolate. There are tens of thousands of people either living in emergency accommodation, sleeping rough, or living in cars, garages and on couches across New Zealand. A brand of chocolate labelled in te reo is the least of their concerns.”

It’s certainly true that homelessness is getting worse. For example, last month 1News reported that when the Government came to power there were 51 children living in cars, and by June this year it had skyrocketed to 228. It’s hard to imagine that many of those families are excited about a luxury-brand of chocolate.


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.  


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