Ethics and Cabinet Ministers

Julie Haggie
Chief Executive Officer
Transparency International New Zealand

‘The time is always right to do what is right’ - Dr Martin Luther King Jr

It’s a steep learning curve for new politicians and particularly for those who hold the decision-making pen in Cabinet. Our democracy is highly dependent on the integrity of processes, where the power entrusted through the Governor-General to Ministers is enabled and applied ethically. The rules are set out in legislation, Te Tiriti o Waitangi, conventions, and common law, and there is guidance in the Cabinet Manual and Standing Orders.

In this article we look at The Cabinet Manual which guides the ethical conduct expected of Cabinet Ministers when exercising their entrusted powers.

Overarching ethical responsibility

All Ministers bring to Parliament their networks, constituencies, communities of interest, and personal beliefs. The Cabinet Manual says that “In all of these roles and at all times, Ministers are expected to act lawfully and behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical and behavioural standards.”

What does this mean in practice?  The ‘Behavioural Statements for the Parliamentary Workplace’ touch on some expected behaviours; for example ‘Use our position of power or influence to help others and avoid harm’. 

In terms of ethical standards, there is more specific guidance that focuses on what is right and wrong.  For example the Cabinet Manual advises elected members not to accept additional payments, to ensure they disclose financial or other interests, and to not allow an active conflict between one’s personal interest and one’s public duty. Most organisations set the specific ethical standards expected of their members.

Lobbying and influence

Lobbying is a hot topic.

In a democracy, everyone has the right to make representations to Ministers on matters that concern them. The Cabinet Manual notes the appropriateness of Ministers receiving a large number of requests for meetings with people and organisations seeking either to influence government policy or to position themselves for providing services, and states that “It is a valid and appropriate aspect of a Minister’s role to engage with representatives of non-government and commercial organisations”. However the Manual also states that engagement should be tempered “to avoid creating a perception that representatives or lobbyists from any one organisation or group enjoy an unfair advantage with the government.”

In other words, Ministers are obliged to be ethical, fair, and transparent, both in whom they meet and what influence on the Minister those people will have. Despite the guidance there have been examples in successive governments, where Ministers have not managed these situations well, which results in a perception of capture, or actual capture. There are also many examples of Ministers doing the right thing.

Transparency International New Zealand expects Ministers to ensure that their engagement with those wishing to influence public opinion does not result in unfair advantage to specific groups. We also expect to see progression on lobbying regulation to bring us in line with comparable countries.

Other ethical standards

The Cabinet Manual covers gifts including commercial and cultural gifts, acceptance of awards, political donations and invitations to events. Ministers have a responsibility to “consider carefully which invitations they will accept, and try to honour invitations from a variety of organisations”. Also, while a Minister can make positive statements about the objectives and achievements of an organisation or business, it is not appropriate to explicitly promote the organisation, or its products or services.

Public Participation

Clearly, new Ministers have a policy platform they are keen to implement. However, the use of urgency should be limited to ensure that the public can have their democratic rights upheld through consultation, submissions, and a robust Select Committee process.

Urgency is not an unmitigated evil. As stated by McLeay, Higbee & Geiringer in their 2011 published research “Governments need to implement their platforms, and sometimes they need to respond very quickly to do this. But this should be the exception – the norm should be full and open debate, with ample opportunity for Opposition scrutiny and public input.” 

Transparency and Accountability

Transparency is a vital element of maintaining ministerial accountability and integrity. A flourishing democracy is where those in power can be held to account – through parliamentary integrity systems, by media scrutiny, by civil society, and at the voting booth. Accountability should be embraced.

Therefore, at the very least, we look forward to seeing regular and up-to-date publications of:

  • Ministers’ diaries
  • Ministers’ perceived or actual conflicts of interest
  • Full declarations of pecuniary interests
  • Parliamentary access lists
  • Accurate returns from all political parties on political donations (due to be released on 1 May 2024)
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