Five months after details began emerging online, the mainstream media were finally forced this week to report conflict of interest allegations swirling around Nanaia Mahuta and her husband.
I don’t think I’ve ever known the New Zealand media to so resolutely ignore an obvious political scandal. It made a striking contrast with their saturation coverage of National’s problems with Sam Uffindell. But ask yourself: which of those two controversies raised more disturbing questions about integrity in politics?
A New Zealand journalist friend of mine who has spent most of his long working life in Australia was astonished that the Mahuta story didn’t provoke an immediate and explosive reaction when it first surfaced. He remarked that even in New South Wales, “where corruption is expected at all levels of government”, the awarding of lucrative contracts and appointments to Mahuta’s husband, Gannin Ormsby, and other members of their whanau would have led to heads rolling.
The aggressive Australian media, despite their leftist leanings, would have been all over the story. But here only one mainstream news outlet, the New Zealand Herald – and more specifically its reporter Kate MacNamara – doggedly pursued the issue and extracted, bit by bit, damning details of what appeared to be flagrant favouritism in the way lucrative work was dished out to Mahuta’s family connections.
Other news organisations mostly maintained a resounding silence. It wasn’t until this week that the steadily mounting pile of allegations finally reached the point where the government was forced to act, though it did so in the gentlest possible manner by announcing a Public Service Commission “review”. By this time Labour was not only enmeshed in allegations of nepotism, but the even more serious C-word was being mentioned: corruption.
Labour had the audacity to spin the review as being motivated by its own virtuous concerns about propriety, but it wasn’t fooling anyone. Any self-respecting government would have cringed with embarrassment and shame from the outset, but Labour presumably feels cocky because it largely enjoys immunity from rigorous media scrutiny. Not only is the prime minister deferentially treated in media stand-ups (even Robert Muldoon got a tougher time in press conferences), but questions and exchanges in the House that reflect badly on the government – including attempts by Opposition MPs to extract information about Ormsby’s government contracts – are routinely ignored by the press gallery.
The announcement of the Public Service Commission review meant that the media could no longer ignore the issue, but even then you had to dig deep on Stuff’s website to find any mention of it. And on Newshub’s 6pm News, the tone of political editor Jenna Lynch’s coverage – in which she referred to the story surfacing in “nasty corners of the internet” – appeared grudging, implying that she had to report it but didn’t think we should give it much credibility.
Inevitably, sceptics will wonder whether news organisations’ reluctance to report the scandal is connected with their acceptance of taxpayers’ money from the Public Interest Journalism Fund. Of course it may not be, but media recipients of funds from the Pravda Project, as I call it, are now stuck with the suspicion that they are ethically compromised and that every story they cover (or more importantly, as in this case, don’t cover) is likely to be treated as potentially tainted by political influence. Perhaps media bosses should have thought of that risk before they signed up to the fund.
There’s another possible explanation for the media’s hands-off approach, and that’s their terror of being labelled as racist. Mahuta is protected by virtue of being the government’s most senior Maori minister and a highly placed member of the powerful Tainui tribal hierarchy. Shane Te Pou, a commentator much favoured by news organisations despite his Labour Party connections (which are almost never acknowledged), was certainly quick off the mark in dismissing scrutiny of Ormsby’s affairs as racist.
For her part, Mahuta pretends that technically adhering to Cabinet Manual guidelines on conflicts of interest absolves her of any fault. It doesn’t, and as a seasoned politician she must know it. Simply declaring a conflict doesn’t magically make it acceptable. A comparison has been drawn with dangerous goods on an aircraft; you don’t get to board the plane just because you’ve declared you’re in possession of them. Besides, there’s the tricky issue of public perception, which the Cabinet Manual warns should be considered in situations where any suspicion might arise. Clearly that didn’t happen when contracts were being showered on Ormsby like confetti, apparently with no contestability and in one instance even without a written contract.
Meanwhile senior ministers Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins continue to spin the feeble line that conflicts of interest are inevitable in a small place like New Zealand. Really? Are they seriously suggesting that in a country awash with Maori consultancies, Mahuta’s tight little family circle was the only source of expertise on a range of Maori issues that extended across youth suicide, waste management, housing, hui facilitation and conservation? Pull the other one.