The Kris Faafoi case raises questions about the adequacy of the rules regarding conflicts of interest for ministers and former ministers, and the Barbara Kuriger case highlights the absence of any such rules for backbench MPs
Opinion: The curious case of Taranaki-King Country MP Barbara Kuriger, who stood down abruptly last week from her roles as an Opposition spokesperson, has drawn fresh attention to how MPs manage conflicts of interest. There have already been unresolved questions about the appropriateness of former minister Kris Faafoi’s move to establish a public relations and political lobbying business just weeks after leaving Parliament.
However, the circumstances of the two situations are quite different. In Faafoi’s case, he has been subject to the provisions of the Cabinet Manual regarding conflicts of interest. But while those provisions are quite extensive they are silent on what has become the key issue of the Faafoi case, namely the short time frame between his departure and the establishment of his new business.
Australia and Canada have clear rules requiring former ministers to undergo a stand-down period of up to a year before they can become involved in businesses drawing on their inside knowledge as a minister. In New Zealand there are no such rules, nor, if the Prime Minister is to be believed, are there likely to be for some time.
Where the Kuriger case differs is that she was not a minister, so is not bound by the provisions of the Cabinet Manual. For her, the relevant formal guides to the behaviour and conduct of MPs are Parliament’s Standing Orders, the record of Speakers’ Rulings on the application of those Standing Orders, and the MPs’ Code of conduct released in 2020.
But there is no reference in the Standing Orders to managing conflicts of interest, or even what may constitute a conflict of interest. MPs are required to submit an annual declaration of their pecuniary interests, which is made public, and to declare if they have a financial conflict on any piece of legislation coming before the House, but that is all.
The Speakers’ Rulings are also silent on conflicts of interest. Moreover, McGee’s Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, the authoritative text on Parliamentary behaviour and practice in New Zealand, notes “the House has not adopted detailed ethical guidelines for its members, taking the view that advice about appropriate behaviour is primarily a matter for induction training and internal party discipline”. Erskine May, often referred to as the “Bible of Parliamentary procedure”, makes a similar point in respect of the British House of Commons. When it comes to conflicts of interest, MPs have been largely left to manage them themselves.
It is far from clear the actions that caused Kuriger’s conflict of interest would have ever been identified, were it not for the whistleblower within the Ministry of Primary Industries contacting her party leader’s office. That is simply not acceptable.
The Kuriger incident is another example of the essentially hands-off approach to the management of backbench MPs that has been brought into the public spotlight by so many lapses in recent years. It raises again whether such an approach is fit for purpose any more, and whether more specific rules and guidance are now required to prevent repetitions. Leaving things once more to “internal party discipline” is looking more and more inadequate to deal with today’s circumstances.
In recent years, the House of Commons and our own House of Representatives have adopted codes of conduct for the behaviour of MPs. But their focus has been on curbing bullying and harassment, and ensuring MPs treat those working alongside them in the Parliamentary environment with respect. They have not considered the question of conflicts of interest as they apply to ordinary MPs.
The time has surely come to formalise general conflict of interest rules for all MPs, and for the Cabinet Manual to address the specific issues raised by the Faafoi case.
However, the lack of clear rules cannot be used as an excuse for Kuriger’s conduct. From the few details revealed, she has acted in a manner that, for whatever reason, was unwise and unprofessional and compromised the integrity of her role as an MP. In the circumstances, by continuing to pursue matters related to the earlier prosecution of her son by the Ministry of Primary Industries, she overstepped the mark, bringing not only her judgment into question, but also making her position as a senior Opposition spokesperson untenable.
That makes it unlikely she will ever serve as a minister, which in turn raises the question of whether she will continue as an MP. What makes all this so remarkable is that up till this point Kuriger had been viewed as a competent person of sound judgment who would perform well in a ministerial role.
The fact Kuriger stood down so quickly once the circumstances of her case became known cannot be an excuse for leaving things as they are. From the moment the Ministry of Primary Industries began pursuing prosecutions against her husband and son in 2017, Kuriger should have immediately stood aside, for the period the prosecutions were live, from any situations with the potential to create a conflict of interest or compromise her position as an MP. That she did not was a poor reflection on her judgment and that of National’s leadership at the time.
The telling point is that it is far from clear the actions that caused Kuriger’s conflict of interest would have ever been identified, were it not for the whistleblower within the Ministry of Primary Industries contacting her party leader’s office. That is simply not acceptable.
Where the Faafoi case has raised questions about the adequacy of the existing Cabinet Manual rules regarding conflicts of interest for ministers and former ministers, the Kuriger case has highlighted the complete absence of any such rules for backbench MPs. With an election looming and a likely significant intake of new MPs next year, from a variety of backgrounds, there is now an urgent need for the Cabinet Office, the Speaker and the Standing Orders Committee to prioritise over the next few months updating the rules and practices regarding managing conflicts of interests for ministers and MPs.