A consulting firm belonging solely to the husband of Labour Minister Nanaia Mahuta, (William) Gannin Ormsby, was awarded a grant of $28,300 by the Ministry of Māori Development in a period when Mahuta was the department's Associate Minister.
The role of Associate Minister has narrowly defined responsibilities. The funds were awarded from a suicide prevention fund administered by the department; decision-making responsibility for investments from the Rangatahi Suicide Prevention Fund rested with Willie Jackson, the Minister of Māori Development, his office said.
Relating to matters where Minister Mahuta has ministerial responsibility, a spokesperson for her office said: "Where there have been conflicts they have been disclosed to the Cabinet Office. Where there have been conflicts, they are managed appropriately, in accordance with the Cabinet Manual."
Department documents describe the payment to Ormsby as "funding" for a project to "increase confidence, resilience and self-awareness in rangatahi [young people] through a series of wānanga [forums or seminars]".
The money flowed from the fund "Rangatahi Manawaroa" formerly the Rangatahi Suicide Prevention Fund, and was made to Ormsby's consulting firm, Ka Awatea Services, in April last year; Ormsby is the company's sole shareholder.
Gannin Ormsby spoke to the Herald late on Wednesday. He initially declined to comment on the process he followed in applying for the grant and the disclosures he made, but he subsequently provided to the Herald his firm's application document, which notes under "conflict of interest": "Yes - Nanaia Mahuta is the wife of Ka Awatea Director Gannin Ormsby and Aunty of Ka Awatea Directors and Toa Taua Taiao [the project's name] creators Tamoko and Waimirirangi Ormsby."
Ormsby also said the project was successful and overseen by his nephew, Tamoko Ormsby, and Tamoko's wife, Waimirirangi Ormsby, both of whom are directors of Ka Awatea Services.
A spokesperson for the Department of Māori Development said that expertise in suicide prevention was not required of those receiving money from the fund.
She said the grant awarded to Ka Awatea was made "to deliver a series of workshops, wānanga and excursions for 40 rangatahi, based in Waikato, to connect and learn how to care for the environment and their own wellbeing."
The award is separate from, and in addition to, a consulting contract of $25,000 awarded to Ka Awatea Services, by the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) in October, 2020, when Mahuta was also that department's Associate Minister.
In addition, MfE awarded a $65,000 contract to a second consultancy, Kawai Catalyst, owned by Tamoko Ormsby and Waimirirangi Ormsby.
MfE said the work entailed in both contracts was to guide the development of a new waste strategy according to mātauranga Māori.
Last month, asked about the MfE contracts, a spokesperson for Mahuta said "the Minister has had no involvement in the appointment of family members".
Sam Buckle, Deputy Secretary of water policy and resource efficiency at the MfE, said: "The personal relationships between the Ormsby family members and Minister Mahuta were disclosed from the beginning."
He said the MfE took measures including: "no ministerial involvement in the process of identifying rōpū members, deciding on the nature and scope of their contribution, or preparing their contracts"; "assurance members had the expertise we needed"; and, "full disclosures of potential conflicts of interest in procurement documents."
David Seymour, leader of the Act Party, called on Minister Mahuta to "speak up" and "make a clear statement" about her family relationships and how they were managed.
"New Zealand is a small country where conflicts are inevitable. However, to manage that fact, Ministers in Government must go the extra mile. In fact the Cabinet Manual states that perceptions of conflict may be as bad as an actual conflict.
While each of the Minister's relatives' appointments is defensible by itself. The Government now needs to explain why it believes this pattern is acceptable," Seymour said.
"New Zealand has a good culture of respecting politicians' families. Yet that's why this accumulation of Mahuta-related appointments and contracts deserves explanation."
The Cabinet Manual states that it "may not be appropriate for Ministers to participate in decision-making on matters affecting family members, whānau, or close associates" it gives the examples: "attempting to intercede on their behalf on some official matter; proposing family members for appointments; or participating in decisions that will affect the financial position of a family member."
It notes that "public perception is a very important factor" and that "appearances and propriety can be as important as actual conflicts of interest" and "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."
However, on remedies it is quite broad. It provides examples of how conflicts may be managed, for example, transferring responsibility for related-party appointments to another minister, but it is not prescriptive.
Barbara Allen, senior lecturer in public management at the School of Government at Victoria University of Wellington, said that in some circumstances relationships might simply be too close to reasonably manage: "Do I think there are relationships that are just too close? Yes, I think it's possible for it to be too close. However, where to draw the line? I don't know how that would be done here," she said.
She said at the very least in such high-profile instances as a Minister or Associate Minister's department hiring a spouse she would expect to see a thorough "mapping out of the relationships, it might look like a family tree, and a very clearly documented process to support the avoidance of conflict."
Earlier this month, a spokesperson for her office said Mahuta does not consider Tamoko Ormsby's wife, Waimirirangi Ormsby, "a close family member" (the pair married in 2019).
In 2019 Ms Ormsby was appointed to the group which produced the He Puapua report for the Ministry for Māori Development.
"The Minister identified the perception for [sic] a conflict of interest [in the appointment of Waimirirangi Ormsby] and declared it to her colleagues."
"Where there have been any potential conflicts, the Minister has been proactive in identifying and managing these, and where necessary taken appropriate steps," the spokesperson for Mahuta said earlier this month.
MfE said Tāmoko Ormsby joined the department as a part-time, fixed-term Senior Policy Analyst in August 2021 and is still employed there.
Mahuta ceased to be Associate Minister for the department in November, 2020.