In washing her hands of the NZ First imbroglio, Jacinda Ardern is refusing to do her job.
Ardern insists that if they are not Labour MPs, it is not her role to monitor and investigate the actual and perceived ethical standards of her ministers outside their ministerial roles.
She is wrong.
The Cabinet Manual has quasi-constitutional status, being one of the primary sources of information on New Zealand's constitutional arrangements.
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It outlines expectations about the conduct of ministers, including the Prime Minister, and — similar to the summary of the President's powers in the United States Constitution — is the closest they have to a job description.
Because New Zealand's constitution evolves to take account of political realities, the Cabinet Manual is regularly updated by our constitutional guardians, including the Cabinet Secretary and senior members of the judiciary. This was last done just two years ago in 2017, so the current edition clearly takes into account contemporary MMP and multi-party government.
New governments, including Ardern's, also endorse it at their very first Cabinet meeting after being sworn in.
Ministers are at all times accountable to the Prime Minister.
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The manual makes clear that this accountability extends not just to ministers acting in a ministerial capacity, but also in a political or personal capacity.
The required standard of behaviour is to uphold "the highest ethical standards". Even tougher, ministers must not just in fact uphold the highest ethical standards, but be seen to do so. The perception of a breach of ethics is treated the same way as an actual one.
In terms of what the "the highest ethical standards" means, the Prime Minister alone determines it. Whatever behaviour or perceived behaviour a minister gets away with without being sacked is by definition what the Prime Minister considers "the highest ethical standards".
A key part of the Prime Minister's job is therefore to monitor and where necessary investigate and act upon even perceptions of behaviour that they believe fall below "the highest ethical standards". With ministers being ultimately accountable to no one else, this is arguably the most important role of a Prime Minister.
In recent days, Ardern has refused to say if she believes her deputy, Winston Peters, has obeyed the law at all times. She says she has no responsibility as Prime Minister for that matter. She seems unwilling even to ask him, saying it would be wrong for her as Prime Minister to inquire into practices involving a political party other than Labour.
That is, she has adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy towards the political and personal activities of ministers from NZ First and the Greens.
Perhaps Ardern's reticence to carry out her constitutional responsibilities as Prime Minister relates to her not being squeaky clean herself.
One of her closest political advisers is one of my fellow lobbyists, Gordonjon Thompson, who she uses as a sounding board. So trusted is Thompson that he was even her temporary chief of staff for the first four months of her Government, even though the formidable Heather Simpson, who held the role for nine years for Helen Clark, was also available.
According to the Prime Minister, Thompson had input into all staffing matters across every Beehive office, including the appointment of 111 staff.
Moreover, he had access to all Cabinet papers and other secret Government material, perhaps even to SIS security clearance reports on potential Beehive staff. The Prime Minister will not say what his security classification was or if he had access to intelligence information and attended meetings and briefings with her as Minister for National Security and Intelligence.
Through all this time, Thompson remained a shareholder and director of his lobbying firm, obliged to act in the best interests of the company, and even conducted some company business.
His services as a lobbyist continued to be advertised on the company website, along with the number of the cellphone sitting right next to him on the 9th floor of the Beehive.
The Prime Minister says any conflicts of interests that may have emerged from this highly unusual situation were "managed" to her satisfaction.
But it turns out this "management" involved the same "don't ask, don't tell" technique she is now using with the allegations involving the Deputy Prime Minister. No one in the Government, including the Prime Minister, was provided with a list of Thompson's company's clients while he held the highest and most sensitive non-elected position in the Beehive.
It is possible that at the time, the company's only client was the Little Sisters of the Poor.
On the other hand, it might have been the People's Liberation Army. It is known that one of its clients since is Huawei.
Regardless, the point is that the Prime Minister did not know who his clients were and nor did she take steps to find out.
Through to the present, the Prime Minister's office says that she and Thompson continue to apply a rule never to discuss his clients or business. But if she does not know who his clients are, how could she know if they are chatting about their interests — say, hypothetically, if she called Thompson as a sounding board on New Zealand-China relations?
There is no suggestion Thompson has done anything wrong. Any political junkie and lobbyist would jump at the chance to spend four months as a temporary chief of staff receiving Cabinet papers and appointing the Beehive staff if one of their friends became Prime Minister.
For that matter, there is no proof that Peters has done anything wrong.
But as we also saw with the allegations of sexual misconduct at a Labour Party summer camp and by one of her own staff, Ardern's "don't ask, don't tell" rule is not good enough when it comes to upholding both the reality and the perception of the highest ethical standards of her Government.
In the centre of the current scandal, the constitution requires her to ask and for Peters to tell. If they don't want to uphold that convention, they really should find other, less complicated jobs.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland based public relations consultant and lobbyist. His company has given donations above $10,000 but below the $15,000 legal disclosure limit to each of the National, Labour and NZ First parties over the past three years.