When Labour alleged in the House earlier in the week that John Key had been asking questions in the House about the government's plans to buy back the track while holding shares in Tranz Rail, the media were quick to dismiss the allegations. It turns out they were wrong. While Key had disposed of his shareholding before asking questions in mid June 2003, there were at least two other occasions, in October 2002 and April 2003, when he asked questions about the company. At the time, he had a direct financial interest in it - an interest that was not declared.
There's a name for this: a conflict of interest. And even Key disapproves of such situations. In October 2003, during the debate on Parliament's register of pecuniary interests, he said:
It might be a bit uncomfortable, but if I am a shareholder of Tranz Rail and I want to get up in this House and start talking about that company, then my shareholding is relevant.Indeed it is. Which ought to make everyone wonder why he didn't disclose it a year ago when he'd been doing just that.
Disclosure of potential conflicts of interest is a fundamental of good governance. It allows such conflicts to be managed, and it prevents corruption. Key's failure to disclose raises direct questions about his honesty, his integrity, and his ability to separate his personal interests from his duties as an MP. It also makes you wonder how many other times he's done it, and whether he's profited from it.
As for those who argue that there's nothing to worry about because "politicians wouldn't put their careers at risk for such a trivial amount of money", this simply shows how out of touch they are. 30,000 shares in Tranz Rail may not have been particularly valuable, but its still more than many New Zealanders make in a year (and indeed, more than most New Zealanders made in a year at the time). It's a new car, a house deposit, a wedding. If that's "trivial" to John Key and our political journalists, then it simply shows they have nothing in common with most of us.