Jacqui Van Der Kaay: Rules can’t restore personal integrity

Jacqui Van Der Kaay: Rules can’t restore personal integrity

While Prime Minister Chris Hipkins is to be applauded for strengthening the rules around conflict of interest for Ministers, questions need to be asked about why more rules are needed.

Hipkins announced five changes to the conflict-of-interest rules for Ministers last week, following Minister Michael Wood’s resignation after he discovered more shares in a family trust raising further questions around potential conflicts of interest. The former Minister had already been stood down from the transport portfolio after failing to sell his shares in Auckland Airport, despite multiple requests to do so.

The new rules are:

  • Quarterly reporting about conflicts of interest to the Prime Minister
  • Escalation process if Ministers are not acting on advice
  • Annual in-person reviews with Ministers
  • A nominated person in each Minister’s office to be aware of possible conflicts
  • Conflicts becoming a standing item at Cabinet meetings

The fundamental issue with having rules is that they need to be followed. The rules around conflict of interest are already outlined in the Cabinet Manual and they’re clear. And, in the case of former Minister Michael Wood, even being asked 16 times by the Cabinet office didn’t help him to abide by them.

While strengthening them may go some way to helping the integrity issues that are beleaguering this Government, questions remain about why elected representatives, and in particular Ministers, can’t take personal accountability for their integrity.

Independent agency

The Prime Minister has indicated that more change may follow including possibly following Australia’s lead by requiring Ministers to divest shares at the time of their appointment.

Earlier this year, Lyn Provost became New Zealand’s first Independent Commissioner for Parliamentary Standards. The appointment followed the Francis review into bullying behaviour and the culture of Parliament’s precinct. The role is responsible for looking into claims of bullying and improper conduct.

However, some commentators have suggested it may be time to have a wider independent agency oversee the integrity and ethical issues in Parliament. International experience, however, shows that such independent oversight appears to make little difference to behaviour and worse, doesn’t increase the public’s trust in elected officials.

In May 2009, the widespread misuse of allowances and expenses by British MPs in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords and on all sides became a major political scandal. The scandal happened during a time of economic recession and the public outrage led to a number of MPs resigning, some being fired, some being charged with criminal offenses, some of which resulted in convictions and jail terms, and some MPs being deselected before the 2010 general election.

One of the outcomes of this scandal was the establishment of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to oversee MPs’ salaries and expenses. This was in addition to other already established oversight bodies, including the Committee on Standards in Public Life, that had been set up in an effort to regulate the ethics of elected representatives in Britain.

Research undertaken after the 2009 scandal, found that codes of conduct and other institutional guidance did not have any impact on either the level of transgressions or on the public’s view of politicians. In fact, the levels of trust in politicians continued to decline despite this. More recently, it’s clear that the rules, guidance, and independent oversight did nothing to stop the raft of scandals in British politics including former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s party gate saga.

Citizens’ views of ethics and integrity

Of even more concern, is that the same research found that politicians’ views of what is considered ethically acceptable differed from that of citizens.  Elected representatives tend to take a more minimalist view, whereas the public considers it in a wider context even as far as including the words politicians use and keeping the promises they make.

One of the starkest findings was that when citizens are forced to choose, most people would rather have politicians who were honest, even if they were less successful and hard-working. At a time when citizens’ engagement in politics is waning with declining levels of voter participation, Ministers would do well to remember that the public holds them to higher standards than they do. And, further, that “the health of any democracy is in part dependent on citizens having confidence and trust in those who rule them”.2

  1. Allen, N., & Birch, S. (2015). Ethics and Integrity in British Politics: How Citizens Judge their Politicians’ Conduct and Why It Matters. Cambridge University Press.
  2. ibid, pg 4


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.