Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.
Political Roundup: Ardern is right to insist on ethical standards, even on chocolate endorsements
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was right to question Marama Davidson’s endorsement of Whittaker’s chocolate. The rule forbidding ministers from endorsing products or services is a basic protection against corruption. It helps maintain the impartiality of ministers who have enormous individual power when it comes to regulations that directly impact businesses.
Davidson, who is Associate Minister of Housing, purchased a bunch of the Whittaker’s “Creamy Milk” chocolate bars – rebranded for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori as “Miraka Kirīmi” – and posed with them on the steps of Parliament, stating that she loved the company.
Ardern asked the Cabinet Office to remind her Minister of the Cabinet Manual rules, which clearly stipulate “no Minister should endorse in any media any product or service”. Davidson was initially defiant, standing her ground, but eventually relented and edited her social media post to remove the company’s name from her endorsement.
Trivial or serious?
Unsurprisingly in a country in which there is often complacency about corruption or the influence of business in politics, there was much scoffing about the pettiness of the PM’s insistence on ethical standards. To many, an endorsement of a chocolate company was too trivial to get the Green Minister in trouble. One political journalist labelled it “Whittakergate” and evaluated it as “the dumbest political scandal of our time”.
Broadcaster Lloyd Burr protested Ardern’s clampdown on endorsements, saying “It’s an outrageous beat-up that makes me so damned cynical of politics.” Burr argued Ardern had completely overreacted and “like she was the Year 6 classroom monitor, and reported to the head teacher that Greens co-leader Marama Davidson had breached the school rules.”
Even National MP Chris Bishop came to Davidson’s defence saying it was only a “very, very technical breach” of the rules, arguing that something of a blind eye should be turned in this case.
But Ardern did actually need to reassert the rules. It may have been a relatively minor breach of the Cabinet Manual, but it is still a breach. The rule that Ministers shouldn’t get too close to business interests is a good one. The power of capital already plays an outsized influence on political decision-makers, and so for the integrity of the political system there need to be clear guidelines and ethical standards to help prevent corruption, bribery, and nepotism in politics.
In this case, a constitutional rule preventing Ministers from endorsing businesses and their products is a small but significant barrier to politicians cosying up to vested interests.
It might have been “only chocolate” – a product that for some reason gets a free pass in the eyes of many – but Davidson’s actions were a deliberate promotion of a business product and she went out of her way to stage the endorsement in front of the Beehive. The episode has no doubt been a useful advertisement for Whittaker’s.
The importance of preventing a slippery slope of unethical behaviour
The problem is one of slippery slopes and grey areas. Once politicians allow small breaches of ethical rules, it can easily evolve into a culture where greater breaches are made.
Some made the same argument of a “trivial” breach back in 2014 when then Justice Minister Judith Collins was photographed with milk from the Oravida dairy exporting company, for which her husband was a director. At the time, Grant Robertson rightly pursued Collins for breaching the Cabinet Manual rules. And Collins gave her defence: “Shock, horror, I drink milk. I promote New Zealand milk anywhere I go. It’s the finest milk in the world”. But the dairy endorsement eventually played a part in her being sacked as a minister by Prime Minister John Key.
Since then, we have continued to have ministers endorsing companies, so Ardern sending a reminder to her colleagues about the rules is not before time. One of the prime offenders is Stuart Nash, who is often seen endorsing businesses in his electorate. For example, he posted this year: “For good health I always start the day with a glass of warm lemon juice from the Limery.” There are plenty of other examples of ministers in recent governments blatantly promoting businesses, and it appears to be on the increase.
It should also be noted that the Prime Minister herself could be seen as sailing close to the wind in her promotion of designer clothing companies, often accepting free clothes to wear on the international stage. And of course, much of the PM’s overseas travel is about promoting particular New Zealand businesses and their products. She even went on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert in the US to endorse the beef products of Silver Fern Farms.
In the end, it’s the role of the Prime Minister to decide what is a breach of the Cabinet Manual rules, and what consequences a minister should face. So don’t expect the PM’s endorsements to stop anytime soon.
Davidson under fire for virtue signalling while failing on homelessness
Some have suggested Davidson’s chocolate antics are a form of virtue signalling – designed to show how progressive she is while doing very little in terms of homelessness, her area of responsibility as minister.
After Davidson’s promotion of Whittaker’s, Newshub looked at her performance in her portfolio, with journalist Imogen Wells reporting, “since getting the role in 2020, Davidson’s issued just eight press releases and presented only three papers to Cabinet – which were joint with others – and introduced zero Bills to parliament to address homelessness.”
When the journalist challenged Davidson on whether she is actually working hard on the homelessness crisis, the politician replied: “Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt. Every single hour, every single day.”
Commentators have drawn attention to her former co-leader James Shaw being rolled from his position after party activists felt he hadn’t done enough in his portfolio. Davidson is regarded by many to have done much less, but to be safer because new Green Party constitutional rules require a co-leader who is Māori and one that is female, and she ticks both boxes.
As to suggestions that Davidson spends more time on social media than she does working on homelessness, the minister replied that social media such as Instagram “is where many of our people are, our communities and people who want to engage with us, that’s where we do a lot of it.” She also pointed out that she had been working on a prevention of violence strategy, which she argued could be seen as equivalent to “100 press releases”.
Given the crisis in housing, especially the rise in homelessness under Davidson’s watch, some on the political left found her focus on promoting chocolate branded with te reo Māori to be symbolic of the Greens’ direction.
Leftwing political commentator Steven Cowan questioned the priorities of the Minister for Homelessness: “It is incongruous, to say the least, that Davidson who has a ministerial brief to assist some of the poorest people in the country, should be promoting a brand of chocolate. There are tens of thousands of people either living in emergency accommodation, sleeping rough, or living in cars, garages and on couches across New Zealand. A brand of chocolate labelled in te reo is the least of their concerns.”
It’s certainly true that homelessness is getting worse. For example, last month 1News reported that when the Government came to power there were 51 children living in cars, and by June this year it had skyrocketed to 228. It’s hard to imagine that many of those families are excited about a luxury-brand of chocolate.
Other items of interest and importance today
PARLIAMENT AND GOVERNMENT
Matthew Hooton (Herald): Time’s up for most inept Government ever (paywalled)
Lloyd Burr (Today FM): Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is out-of-touch and plagued by missteps
Jo Moir (Newsroom): Bishop set to run National’s 2023 campaign
Peter Dunne (Newsroom): Luxon in danger of becoming the Ian Foster of NZ politics
Bridie Witton (Stuff): National rules out working with Freedoms NZ, a new political party formed of fringe groups
Bridie Witton (Stuff): Labour’s plain language bill passes second reading
Johnny Blades (RNZ): Parliament journos back on the tiles
KIWISAVER FEE TAX U-TURN
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): What next for axed KiwiSaver policy?
ODT: KiwiSaver: Politics trumps policy
Amelia Wade (Newshub): Government accused of undermining confidence in KiwiSaver following tax U-turn
Bernard Hickey: A one-day epic tax fail – and the far bigger tax tragedy behind it
Eric Crampton: An odd approach to tax policy
Kate Hawkesby (Newstalk): This Govt has done it’s chips and panic mode isn’t going to save them
Hamish McNicol (NBR): The KiwiSaver GST ‘disaster’ and chocolate freebies (paywalled)
Mark Quinlivan (Newshub): Labour’s Michael Wood won’t say if any Cabinet members stood up against KiwiSaver GST plan
LOCAL GOVERNMENT, THREE WATERS, AND ELECTIONS
Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): Lower voting age and longer terms for local councils – Govt review
Toby Morris (Spinoff): Big tick energy: The 2022 local election hoardings review
Kea Kids News: Auckland mayoral candidates reveal their best dance moves and funny faces
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Newstalk): I can’t understand why some people are getting quite this worked up about conspiracy theorists running for council
Tim Brown (RNZ): Local body elections: Why some fringe candidates seek office and what they want to achieve
RNZ: LGNZ launches voter education campaign as conspiracists, extremists stand for election
Jennifer Eder (Stuff): When you ask a candidate if she is part of Voices for Freedom
Tina Law (Stuff): Council bosses organise private meetings with Christchurch mayoral candidates
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Is running on a ticket the antidote to minority mayors? (paywalled)
Georgina Campbell (Herald): The case for councillors, mayors, and their kingdoms (paywalled)
Andreas Heuser (Herald): Five big problems with Three Waters (paywalled)
Richard Harman: Nelson floods raise new questions about three waters (paywalled)
HOMELESSNESS AND HOUSING
Wilhelmina Shrimpton (Today FM): There just aren’t enough state houses and rents are rising
Brad Lewis (Today FM): Rotorua becoming a dumping ground for undesirables thanks to emergency housing motels
Grady Connell (Today FM): ‘It feels like it is growing’ – Lifewise manager on service demands
Richard Norman and Andrew Washington (Stuff): How Wellington’s rating system discourages housing development
Miriam Bell (Stuff): What could NZ learn from Singapore’s high homeownership rate?
Dileepa Fonseka (Stuff): Build taller is the housing lesson from Dublin’s unfair city
Grady Connell (Today FM): New Zealand seeing house prices drop by NZ$710 a day
Anne Gibson (Herald): Home values fall below $1m as downturn accelerates in August
Eva Corlett (Guardian): New Zealand house prices continue to plunge, as national average falls below $1m
Stephen Minto (Daily Blog): Proof market capitalism fails
ECONOMY, EMPLOYMENT, INEQUALITY
Daniel Smith (Stuff): ‘Everything costs so much more’: Young people confront inflation
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): Living Wage increases by 90c an hour
Herald: Imports jump by billions, high energy costs blamed as NZ moves into deficit
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Fewer people receive second ‘cost of living’ payment after extra checks kick in
Jason Mika (Herald): The billion dollar Māori economy must look towards the Asia-Pacific region for shared prosperity
CLIMATE AND ENVIRONMENT
Rosie Gordon (RNZ): Climate change experts warn people must rethink trans-Tasman travel habits
Shane Jones (Herald): Less Climate Change Commission puffery, more economic realism (paywalled)
Andrea Vance (Stuff): Greens urge Government to immediately halt bottom trawling on sea mounts
Geoffrey Miller (World Politics Review): Ardern’s Hot-and-Cold Approach to China Is Getting Harder to Follow
RNZ: NZSIS, GCSB Minister to visit all Five Eyes partners
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Mixed messages on Xinjiang report from NZ politicians
RNZ: UN report on claims of abuse against Uyghurs: Nanaia Mahuta calls on China to respond
John Minto (Daily Blog): Here’s the wrong way to fight racism and anti-semitism
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Government considers axing Covid traffic lights
Otago Daily Times: Government looks at scrapping mask mandates in some health settings
Bridie Witton (Stuff): Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refuses to be drawn on shift to green
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Covid-19 isolation win-win gets no traction
MEDIA AND DEBATE
Simon Louisson (The Standard): Govt public media reform performance makes AB’s look good
Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): The Woman with the red umbrella – A short story
Waimanea Nuri (Herald): Newshub’s Oriini Kaipara is breaking glass ceilings in the broadcasting landscape
Alexia Russell (RNZ): School trustees: What happens when a board fractures?
Aaron Smale (Newsroom): Crown Law blocks the police in rare, costly legal standoff
RNZ: Paula Tesoriero named to head Whaikaha Disability Ministry