Chris Hipkins must be starting to wonder whether any more Cabinet Ministers might embarrass him.
The procession of Ministers this year making the headlines for the wrong reasons recalls the same sort of saga in the Key Government.
Then, in 2014, Labour’s Chief Whip, Chris Hipkins said Key had promised a higher bar, for ministerial accountability and ministerial standards, “and yet every year that he is Prime Minister, the threshold gets lowered.”
Now those words may be coming back to haunt him.
Michael Wood’s ownership of airport shares while Minister of Transport was a basic political blunder.
And though Jan Tinetti may have breached an important Parliamentary rule by misleading the House, her hearing before the privileges Committee this Thursday will not carry the political weight of Wood’s actions – or non-actions.
Wood is a much more important Labour figure; some say a potential leader.
Hipkins yesterday was unsparing in his language about him and his shareholding.
“I’m disappointed, and I’ve certainly expressed my disappointment,” he said about Wood’s failure to dispose of his airport shares.
What must make Hipkins more than disappointed is that after Stuart Nash was sacked over his relationship with donors, he asked Ministers to ensure they had no conflicts of interest.
“I did that actually earlier in the year when this issue arose the first time,” he said.
“I’m disappointed that that clearly has not been actioned at the time.”
The problem facing the Prime Minister was, as is so often the case with these sorts of incidents, that the story changed as the day wore on.
The story began in the NZ Herald, which reported yesterday morning that when asked about the shares, a spokesperson for Wood said he was in the process of getting rid of them.
However, when Hipkins faced the media as he walked into the debating chamber at 2.00 p.m., he had a different variant on the “process of getting rid of them”.
“One of the challenges is that the Cabinet Office had been advised by him on a number of occasions that he was divesting himself of the shares,” Hipkins said.
“That clearly hasn’t happened.
“That is quite a material issue, and so it’s important that he does that.”
What was even more potentially embarrassing was Hipkins’ description of the process that the Cabinet office went through with a new Minister to check out any possible conflicts of interest.
“That it is an interview process, and it is a relatively thorough one,” he said.
“The Cabinet Office will sit down with each minister regularly and new ministers, obviously relatively soon after they’ve been identified that they’re going to be ministers and go through and they’ll interview them.
“They’ve got a series of questions that they’ll ask them about the what the assets, the things that they own, but they also go through other things around relationships and any potential conflicts that are there.
“And they put through put together a relatively comprehensive list.’
Hipkins said these issues would always be complex in a small country like New Zealand.
“You know, people will own a variety of different assets potentially as long as there is transparency around that and good management around that. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a problem.“
Wood says he declared the shares to the Cabinet Office when he became a Minister in 2020 and obviously kept assuring them he was selling them.
Between November 2020 and now, his 1530 shares have increased in value by $2478.60, but because of Covid, he hasn’t received any dividends from the usually highly profitable company.
Hipkins said he would have expected him to have dealt with it beforehand.
“The only explanation he’s given me is that it’s a case of feel like a matter of life admin,” he said.
“It’s just it’s not something that he has sufficiently prioritized as he should have.
“It is important that he does that now.”
But the problem for Hipkins is that “now” may be too late, not so much because of the incident itself but because it follows on behind Nash and Tinetti and also Meka Whaitiri’s walkout from the Labour.
Together all four incidents suggest a level of instability within the Government.
Hipkins must worry that a speech he made in Parliament in 2014 might sound horribly relevant in 2023.
He was talking about a similar pileup in the National Government.
“So, is the National Party willing to walk the talk? Is it going to walk the talk? Will it reveal its anonymous donations?” he said.
“No. Will John Key now fess up and admit that he lied when he said that he did not know about the shareholdings of his supposedly look-through blind trust? And will Judith Collins now admit that she was involved—embroiled—in a dodgy deal to further her husband’s business interests?”
He went on.
“This is a Government that is not willing to walk the talk. It is not willing to walk the talk when it comes to setting high standards.
“John Key promised us a new threshold, a higher bar, for ministerial accountability and ministerial standards, and yet every year that he is Prime Minister, the threshold gets lowered.
“The standards get lowered.
“He is willing to have Peter Dunne knowingly leak documents, lie about it, and try to cover it up.
“He is willing to have Peter Dunne as a Minister in his Government.
“He is willing to have that crook John Banks as a member supporting his Government, and he does nothing about it.”
Wood is an important member of the Government. He is close to Labour’s union base, and he is a protegee of former Labour Leader and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff.
But whether he can be restored to being Minister of Transport is another matter.