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Nanaia Mahuta contracts: Probe finds poor handling of perceived conflicts of interest, but no favouritism

Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta

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Nanaia Mahuta.
Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The Public Service Commissioner says conflict of interest management practices at a number of agencies fall short of what’s expected.

Peter Hughes looked into how government departments and agencies awarded contracts to relatives of senior Cabinet minister Nanaia Mahuta while she was associate minister for those agencies.

Four agencies were found to have awarded contracts to Ka Awatea Services Ltd (KAS) and Kawai Catalyst Ltd (KC), since 2017: Kāinga Ora, the Ministry for the Environment, the Department of Conservation (DOC) and Te Puni Kokiri Ministry of Māori Development.

More of an investigation than an inquiry, Hughes’ review came at the request of Mahuta herself in September, who said she had been “assiduous” regarding declarations of potential conflicts and their management.

Hughes found Te Puni Kōkiri and the Ministry for the Environment failed to properly identify and manage perceived conflicts, as they didn’t follow what were otherwise sound agency policies and processes.

He also found a perceived minor conflict with Kāinga Ora wasn’t identified, as the agency failed to ask about conflicts during the contracting process.

He found there were no conflicts of interest in relation to DOC contracts, but its contract management was poor.

“Perceptions can erode trust and confidence so the public service must have high standards when procuring services on behalf of New Zealanders,” Hughes said in a statement.

“Poorly managed perceived conflicts of interest can be just as damaging to public trust and confidence as poorly managed actual conflicts of interest.”

But his review found no evidence of favouritism, bias, or undue influence over agency decisions in relation to KAS or KC due to a connection with any minister.

The actions of ministers, the directors of KAS and KC, and members of the public, were outside the scope of the review. But Hughes didn’t identify any matter which would require referral to another oversight body.

The agencies involved have taken steps to address the issues Hughes identified. But he will now issue expanded conflicts of interest model standards to agencies, strengthen the controls around identifying and managing conflicts, and write to all chief executives outlining his expectations.

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