23 March 2012
Good government is a reflection of public trust that Ministers and their officials are committed to the rule of law, the democratic process and the spirit of service. Transparent and integrity rich processes are implicit in the spirit of service. Without open and ethical management of conflicting interests, trust is destroyed. Codes of conduct are essentially a structure for managing conflicts, for ensuring that public responsibilities are not prejudiced by the pursuit of personal interest. That rationale underpins the Standards of Integrity and Conduct for the State Services. It underpins the directions in the Cabinet Manual on how Ministers must respond when potential conflicts arise.
Failure to manage conflicts of interest is behind all cases where Ministers have their warrants taken from them. They have put personal interest or what can reasonably be seen as a personal interest ahead of official responsibilities. Conflicts come in many forms. They range from deceit for personal or professional advantage, to using powers, connections and information in improper and unlawful ways.
The Cabinet Manual has repeated references to conflicts of interest. Chapter 2 provides emphatic guidance that
“Ministers are responsible for ensuring that no conflict exists or appears to exist between their personal interests and their public duty. Ministers must conduct themselves at all times in the knowledge that their role is a public one; appearances and propriety can be as important as an actual conflict of interest. Ministers should avoid situations in which they or those close to them gain remuneration or other advantage from information acquired only by reason of their office.”
The Standards of Integrity and Conduct provide equivalent guidance for State servants;
“We must avoid circumstances where our personal interests or relationships conflict with the interests of our organisation. We must also avoid situations where there could be an appearance of such conflict. Our actions need to be fair and unbiased and should always be able to bear close public scrutiny. An important part of strengthening trustworthiness is our commitment to transparency. Openness allows organisations to ensure that conflicts are avoided or managed. By being open with our organisation and disclosing non-work commitments, we enhance our trustworthiness.”
Providing training to agency staff to ensure they understand obligations to manage conflicts and to maintain standards integrity is a statutory responsibility of all chief executives.
The Secretary of the Cabinet is available to assist Ministers in their understanding of the Cabinet Manual.
In response to a Parliamentary Question in 2010 the Deputy Prime Minister told the House on behalf of the Prime Minister: “The Prime Minister is satisfied that Ministers are aware of the guidance in the Cabinet Manual about conflicts of interest and he would expect them to declare an interest in an issue where a conflict actually exists….”
There is an interesting juxtaposition between that statement and yesterday’s resignation of a Minister.