New backbench MP flags up the need to close a loophole in disclosure requirements for both local and national politicians.
A new front has been opened in the long and fraught battle for transparency about politicians’ funding, property and business interests – thanks to a newbie MP straight out of local politics.
Tangi Utikere, who was deputy mayor of Palmerston North until last year, has picked up responsibility for a Member’s bill to force greater transparency on local councillors. But he has promptly realised it highlights a gap in Parliamentary disclosure rules, that is ripe for exploitation.
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The Labour MP for Palmerston North told Newsroom his bill would require councillors to disclose property and directorships they had owned any time in the previous 12 months. That differed from the MPs’ register, he said, which required only a “snapshot” of their pecuniary and specified interests, on January 31 each year.
That led to anomalies like 26-year-old Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick disclosing ownership of only KiwiSaver and managed fund investments. In fact, she and her partner own an apartment in central Auckland. There is no suggestion that Swarbrick was remiss in this: the purchase wasn’t completed until the start of February, just days after January 31 snapshot.
But Utikere explained it also meant that MPs could buy and sell property and shares and run their own businesses for 51 weeks of the year, and didn’t have to disclose those interests – as long as they relinquished those interests for one day each year.
“It’s at a particular point in time, so if you happen to own shares and you dispose of them before the 31st of January, then there’s no onus or responsibility on you to disclose them,” he said.
Even that has proved difficult to enforce, and MPs have proved slow to comply with the existing register.
The problem was such that in May this year, Sir Maarten Wevers, the Registrar of Pecuniary Interests, wrote to Parliament’s Speaker expressing his regret that three Government MPs – Cabinet Minister Michael Wood, and backbenchers Naisi Chen and Ginny Andersen – had not submitted their returns until after the deadline.
“They had received advice on several occasions about the requirements for submission,” Sir Maarten said. “Because of the importance of providing transparency over members’ interests to the House and the public, I have decided to include these late returns in this summary, but I am disappointed to have to draw to the attention of the House the existence of late returns, once again.”
“It was an unfortunate oversight and I’ll work to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
– Michael Wood
Wood eventually disclosed a beneficial interest and trusteeships of the J M Fairey Family Trust (his wife is Puketāpapa Local Board chair Julie Fairey) and ownership of a family home in Auckland’s Mt Roskill and a KiwiSaver scheme.
Wood said he had eventually lodged his disclosure on March 5, and he had no other pecuniary interests, before or after that lodgement, that he hadn’t disclosed. “It was an unfortunate oversight and I’ll work to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” the minister told Newsroom.
Andersen disclosed ownership of a mortgaged family home and Kiwisaver schemes.
Chen, a 27-year-old new MP, disclosed she was a director of employment consultancy Gian Consultants Ltd, as well as two events and consultancy firms that were not trading. She was also on the community foundation Aotearoa Chinese Legal Support Ltd, that sought Government funding, had a Kiwisaver scheme, and owed money on a student loan.
Utikere said he was not aware of any MP exploiting the gap in their disclosure rules. And he indicated he expected the backing of his Government colleagues. Labour was committed to improving transparency and strengthening public trust and confidence in the decision-making of local authorities, he said.
“When I was in local government, I was concerned by inconsistency in the approaches taken by councils to having a bottom line for arresting of pecuniary interests.”
– Tangi Utikere
Utikere’s Local Government (Pecuniary Interests Register) Amendment Bill was originally drafted by his fellow Labour MP Priyanca Radhakrishnan, and drawn from the members’ bill ballot this month.
“When I was in local government, I was concerned by inconsistency in the approaches taken by councils to having a bottom line for arresting of pecuniary interests,” Utikere said.
Utikere said the law change would improve public trust and confidence, and contribute to more robust decision-making.
The bill, if passed, would require local authorities to maintain and publish a register of pecuniary and other specified interests, such as directorships, business interests, employment, or property. It would require councillors to disclose gifts and payments worth more than $500, each year.
“When councils are making decisions about funding opportunities for community groups, often it’s very, very unclear as to what the nature of the relationship is with someone who’s sitting around the decision-making table and the group that’s seeking funding.”
Utikere said most councils contained their disclosure requirements in their code of conduct, rather than in a public register, requiring councillors to voluntarily disclose their interests and stand aside from votes on which they are compromised. Few councils publish a register online, and many don’t publish them at all.
“At the start of every meeting, councillors are asked to declare conflicts of interest… perceived or real. Just last meeting, one councillor declared a [perceived] interest because they’d had a recent phone conversation about it. The model we’re under works. Especially in rural councils like ours. It isn’t a full time role. Talking about declaring every property, holiday home… what’re you trying to solve?”
– Tracey Collis, Tararua mayor
For instance, the Manawatū Standard reports that no local government entities in the central North Island have a pecuniary interest register available to the public.
Palmerston North Mayor Grant Smith and Tararua District Mayor Tracey Collis both said central government politicians were fulltime politicians, and much better remunerated than those on local government, so the same level of scrutiny was not as justifiable.
“At the start of every meeting, councillors are asked to declare conflict of interests… perceived or real,” said Collis. “Just last meeting, one councillor declared a [perceived] interest because they’d had a recent phone conversation about it.
“The model we’re under works. Especially in rural councils like ours. It isn’t a full time role. Talking about declaring every property, holiday home…. what’re you trying to solve?”
“Transparency is important, but there are already many ‘checks and balances’ for elected members.”
– Grant Smith, Palmerston North mayor
Until last year’s election campaign, Utikere was deputy mayor to Grant Smith, in Palmerston North. But on this matter, they disagree.
“Transparency is important, but there are already many ‘checks and balances’ for elected members,” Smith said.
Even those councils that do publish a Register of Pecuniary Interests often do it so belatedly that it becomes almost redundant. For instance, Christchurch and Tauranga city councils’ last published returns are from January 2020. By contrast, some councils hold members to a higher standard – for instance, Auckland Council’s code of conduct requires all gifts over $300 to be declared.
“The most interesting gift, when I became an MP, was a tray of kiwifruit. I think it was from Zespri. My colleagues and I on our floor all donated our kiwifruit to the local foodbank. I couldn’t eat that much kiwifruit!”
– Tangi Utikere, Palmerston North MP
Utikere said that as a Palmerston North councillor, he (like other councillors) had received a silk portrait from a local tertiary institute. He had declared that, though he believed it would have been worth less than $500.
“The most interesting gift, when I became an MP, was a tray of kiwifruit. I think it was from Zespri,” he said. “My colleagues and I on our floor all donated our kiwifruit to the local foodbank. I couldn’t eat that much kiwifruit!”
As an MP, Utikere this year declared shares in Air NZ, joint ownership of a mortgaged family home in Palmerston North, and investments in various Kiwisaver, Sharesies and Fonterra funds.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern disclosed gifts including overseas governments’ contribution to travel, tickets to sports games and the Elton John concert, and also a Christmas gift hamper from Cuban Ambassador Edgardo Valdés.
She met with the Ambassador last month, who posted a photo on Twitter and said he had taken the opportunity to thank her for NZ’s support for a United Nations resolution to end the US “blockade” of Cuba.
That culminated the following week with the General Assembly of the United Nations again approving, by a vote of 184 countries to two, a resolution supporting the need “to end the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the United States of America against Cuba”.
* This story has been corrected. A previous version wrongly referred to Michael Wood having held shares in MYBW Ltd until it was removed from the Companies register in 2017.