Jacqui Van Der Kaay: The personal is political

Jacqui Van Der Kaay: The personal is political

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins must be wondering what else he needs to do to make sure his Cabinet understands the rules of being a Cabinet Minister.

Minister of Justice and Regional Development Minister Kiri Allan this week became the latest to apologise to him for not following the rules in the Cabinet Manual.

Allan was forced to apologise after admitting that comments she made at a farewell function for her fiancé Mani Dunlop from Radio New Zealand may have been interpreted as “me telling RNZ how to manage their staff or company”.

Her defence was that the comments were made in a personal capacity. But the reality is that when you’re a Minister of the Crown the personal is political.

It’s a point that her Cabinet colleague, Defence Minister Andrew Little, took the opportunity to emphasise when speaking to Newstalk ZB when he said “whatever context you are in you are a minister. That’s the way people see you and when I am in the supermarket people stop and talk to me – I am a minister when they are talking to me regardless”.

The Prime Minister has accepted her apology acknowledging that “the management of issues involving families of MPs is tricky” while also saying that “in this instance, it would have been better if Kiri, given her ministerial position, had chosen not to take the opportunity to speak”.

While Allan’s breach pales in significance to the recent Nash scandal, it is a breach nonetheless and it seems surprising that Allan chose to make the comments at a function hosted by one of New Zealand’s main broadcasters.

The Cabinet Manual which sets out the rules on how Cabinet, and therefore the government runs, is clear. It states:

“Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards. This includes exercising a professional approach and good judgement in their interactions with the public and officials, and in all their communications, personal and professional.

Ministers are responsible for ensuring that no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty. Ministers must conduct themselves at all times in the knowledge that their role is a public one; appearances and propriety can be as important as actual conflicts of interest”.

It’s also important to remember that Ministers are also Members of Parliament. They have been elected to Parliament to represent the public, not their own interests.

Research in the United Kingdom shows that the public doesn’t take kindly to politicians who put themselves before those whom they represent. There is a link between how politicians conduct themselves and citizens’ attitudes and engagement with politics.

Integrity issues such as these impact the public’s trust in politicians and the institution in which they work. While Allan’s breach could be dealt with by an apology and didn’t require significant action by the Prime Minister, its effect shouldn’t be underestimated. The public doesn’t necessarily distinguish between the severity of rule breaches, rather it sees them as yet another example of politicians putting their own interests ahead of those whom they were elected to serve.

Earlier this week the Prime Minister committed to updating the Cabinet Manual around lobbying. Perhaps, other parts of the manual need to be reviewed as well. Or, as opposition MP Mark Mitchell has suggested, maybe all Ministers need to carry a copy of the manual with them so they can refer to it.


Jacqui Van Der Kaay is a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington. She is a former journalist, holds a Masters degree in Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington and has a specialist interest in political leadership, voter behaviour, immigration and how social media affects democracy.