Memo to David Shearer: is taking gifts from lobbyists ever a good idea?

This post was originally published at Liberation.

David Shearer has defended taking free hospitality from SkyCity at the Rugby World Cup by saying he didn’t know at the time about the ‘convention centre for pokie machines deal’. If this is really true, then Shearer is, at the very least, guilty of incompetence, as the deal was announced in June 2011 and he is an Auckland MP. The deal was covered by the media at the time in June 2011. The alternative is somewhat worse for Shearer, namely that he was in fact fully aware of the news of the deal in June 2011, but somehow, in May 2012, fell victim to the rather contagious and virulent malady spreading through the New Zealand parliament: the ‘cannot recall’ disease. In this blog post, I warn against politicians receiving corporate gifts and say they should declare them more quickly than they do.

But here’s the crucial point – regardless of the convention centre, just how acceptable is it for politicians of any political colour to be taking gifts from lobbyists? Shearer not only took hospitality from Sky City, he attended the RWC final as the guest of Sky TV. Could he really not expect that this could later create a conflict of interest, real or perceived, should he want to say anything against Sky’s dominance of the New Zealand broadcasting industry? Both Sky City and Sky TV have an enormous interest in staving off government regulation, and the regulations for both companies are currently under review.

To her credit, according to this year’s register of financial interests, Labour’s broadcasting spokeswoman Clare Curran did not accept any free RWC tickets – from Sky TV or anyone else. Unfortunately, Shearer does not appear to have changed his ways even after becoming leader: he had dinner in April 2012 with Sky TV’s chief executive, John Fellet, and its chief lobbyist, Tony O’Brien, at O’Brien’s home.

No-one is saying that politicians cannot interact with New Zealand’s businesses and their owners. Especially in a country as small as New Zealand, this is unrealistic and not necessarily desirable if politicians are to make informed decisions. It is fine if Shearer wants to talk with Sky TV’s management, or with Sky City’s, or with Fonterra’s. What is not OK is to happily accept corporate gifts one day, and expect to credibly criticise the companies on the next. There’s a word for that – hypocrisy. (Some might argue it borders on a much stronger word – corruption).

It is worth noting that civil servants were expressly warned against accepting any Rugby World Cup tickets, in the interest of maintaining public service neutrality. The State Services Commission has some wonderfully sensible advice on the acceptance of gifts that MPs might consider adopting:

There will usually be perceptions of influence or personal benefit if we accept gifts, hospitality or ‘quid pro quo’ exchanges of favours. We must not seek or accept favours from anyone, or on behalf of anyone, who could benefit from influencing us or our organisation. Organisations’ policies on accepting gifts and hospitality vary, depending on their business. In all cases, it is expected that gifts will only be accepted following a transparent process of declaration and registration. To avoid misperceptions, it is essential that the process is public. This requirement applies equally when gifts and opportunities are offered to organisations as a whole – for example, donations to social clubs and staff discount arrangements.

It is a pity their political masters – and the acceptance of free world cup hospitality is a fully bipartisan affair – could not see anything remotely rotten about their actions.

Unfortunately, it is probably unrealistic to expect members of parliament to refuse such gifts in the future. Gifts are gifts, and what’s legal is legal. Besides, the gifts are disclosed. Full transparency – right?

No – full transparency would have seen Shearer fully disclose who paid for his RWC attendances at the time. How? Through a press release. Through his website. Through Twitter. As the State Services Commission wisely counsels: In all cases, it is expected that gifts will only be accepted following a transparent process of declaration and registration. To avoid misperceptions, it is essential that the process is public.

Why should we have to wait until 7 months after the event to find out which MPs sold their independence? Sky City, as a listed company, has to provide continuous disclosure of information that is financially significant to the NZX. Why should it be any different for the politicians they wine and dine?

Voters should not only have a right to transparency, they should have the right to transparency in a timely fashion. Gifts should be disclosed as soon as possible after their receipt – e.g. within 7 days. In the case of hospitality, MPs attendance at functions should even be disclosed in advance where possible. In the case of the RWC, this would have meant voters would have known about their members’ activities well in time for the November 2011 election.

By this method, voters would know what their representatives are up to. And MPs could still have their free rugby games. But would such continuous disclosure have the potential to be just slightly embarrassing? Might it make MPs think twice before accepting their gifts?

This, Mr. Shearer, is precisely the point.

Homepage photo credit:  cheetah100 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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