Sue Kedgley worries that there is nothing to stop our MPs selling themselves to the highest bidder. There is - so they'll have to do it quietly.

Sue Kedgley has an opinion piece in the Herald today asking whether the various "cash-for-services" scandals roiling the UK Parliament could happen in New Zealand, and suggesting that a lack of regulation of MPs behaviour here means the answer is "maybe".

In that piece, she writes:

In Britain, it is illegal for MPs to engage in paid advocacy for outside groups, or accept cash for parliamentary advice or services, under a code of ethics that governs MPs' behaviour in Parliament.

We don't have any similar prohibition or code of ethics in our Parliament. This means that if one of our MPs accepted money for asking questions in the House, or getting access to key ministers, they may not be technically breaching parliamentary rules or ethics.

This misstates things a bit. The "code of ethics" (actually, it's called the "code of conduct", but no matter) governing UK parliamentarians is just that - a code rather than a law. So it is not "illegal" in and of itself to breach that code - it's just that doing so makes MPs subject to the disciplinary powers wielded by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and the Committee on Standards and Privileges

It is true that in New Zealand we do not have any similar code of ethics specifically saying that MPs can't take money to ask questions or the like, and nor do we have a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to independently examine and rule on the issue. But we do have the concept of contempt of Parliament, and Standing Order 407 specifically notes that "the House may treat as a contempt" any of the following:

(f) as a member, failing to declare, before participating in the consideration of any item of business, any financial interest that the member has in that business:

(j) as a member, receiving or soliciting a bribe to influence the member’s conduct in respect of proceedings in the House or at a committee:

(k) as a member, accepting fees for professional services rendered by the member in connection with proceedings in the House or at a committee:

(l) offering or attempting to bribe a member to influence the member’s conduct in respect of proceedings in the House or at a committee.

Any MP (or outsider) adjudged by the Privileges Committee to have committed a contempt could then be punished by anything from a censure through to a fine and right up to (notionally) as much as 3 years in jail.

So there would seem to be at least a mechanism available to deal with some New Zealand MP who (like those in the UK) agrees to "become the parliamentary advocate of a fictional solar energy company, for £144,000 ($287,000) a year" or accepts "thousands of [dollars from] a bogus lobbying firm that was seeking the readmission of Fiji to the Commonwealth ... [to table] questions to ministers about Fiji, and a motion calling for an end to Fiji's suspension from the Commonwealth." Of course, whether that mechanism is sufficient can be argued about - can we trust the Privileges Committee to deal with an MP accused of such matters in a suitably stern manner?

Then, in terms of the law, it is the UK Bribery Act 2010 that (possibly) applies to MPs in the United Kingdom who accept money for asking questions in Parliament or the like.  Just as here in New Zealand the Crimes Act 1961, s 103 states:

Every member of Parliament is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years who corruptly accepts or obtains, or agrees or offers to accept or attempts to obtain, any bribe for himself or any other person in respect of any act done or omitted, or to be done or omitted, by him in his capacity as a member of Parliament.

This is, of course, the offence that sent Philip Field to jail for several years when he accepted services from people whose immigration case he argued in support of. Just as would happen (I hope) to an MP who takes money in a direct exchange for (say) asking questions in the House on a particular topic.

So I'm not necessary saying that Sue Kedgley is wrong to call for greater regulation of lobbying activities in New Zealand. But any concern that there is nothing in place to stop New Zealand's parliamentarians replicating the worst excesses of their British counterparts is misplaced. 

Comments (1)

by stuart munro on June 28, 2013
stuart munro

I'm afraid nothing much has changed since the days when people pointed out to Solon that his laws,like spiderwebs, would catch small flies while the big ones flew through them unhindered. Field & Huata were small flies. Even today the PM is conspiring to gift $22 million in tax liabilities to a foreign owned media entity, for unspecified benefits. Our laws haven't restricted asset sales to reasonable returns or required they meet a standard of public interest.

Present day New Zealand, facing an abundance of similarly dodgy privatisations, including SCF and Solid Energy, might envy the relative cleanliness of Hamlet's Denmark, which only had the one 'something rotten' in it.

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