6 May 2011

Good government is based on regulating conflicts of interest. Personal interests are not to be championed at the expense of community wellbeing.  Those in government must be committed to transparency and do nothing to create personal advantage from their official position.

But is that correct?  Is free speech less important than managing conflicts of interest?

That is an issue now being considered by the US Supreme Court. Do States violate free speech if they prohibit politicians voting on legislative matters when they have an apparent conflict of interest. The case has been described by Justice Scalia as enormously important because it “opens the door to future litigation challenging ethical rules”.

Like many Supreme Court cases this one has humble origins. A friend of a councillor in Sparks, a town of 90,000 in Nevada, began working for a casino development company.  The friend had helped in the councillor’s election campaign.  When a matter relating to the friend’s employer was being considered by the council, the councillor obtained advice from the city attorney that he was entitled to vote. The State ethics commission disagreed;  he should have abstained. In due course the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the councillor’s First Amendment right of free political speech had been unlawfully restricted.

Can a politician with no financial or family ties to an issue be precluded from representing his constituents?

Will  the Court take steam out of the international movement for open and integrity-rich government by deciding that conflict management rules and freedom of speech are incompatible?

Is it conceivable that the Cabinet Manual guidance for New Zealand Ministers about avoiding conflicts of interest, and the State Service Commissioners standards about trustworthiness,  will be undermined by small town politics in the United States?

It will be several months before we know.