Colin Espiner sums up the central issue of Highwater-gate very well:
“Basically it comes down to this: [John Key] said he didn’t know he had shares in Highwater when he really did… let’s be honest, the only people who don’t know what’s in Key’s share portfolio are the general public. There’s no way Key wouldn’t have a fair idea what was in there.”
This isn’t about whether or not Key had meetings in smokey rooms with alcohol magnates. That’s a ridiculous misdirection being run by Kevin Taylor (you could practically hear him supplying Tracy Watkins’ lines on Saturday). No-one is alleging a conspiracy.
The issue is whether or not Key’s trust is blind like he said it would be. It seems that no-one believes that it was blind any more. It’s another broken promise. Even though Key is still asking us to believe he has never heard of Whitechapel (the company that was set up exclusively to run the Aldgatetrust, which he transferred millions of dollars worth of shares to).
Now, just because Key knows what shares he owns doesn’t mean he is having secret meetings with the alcohol peddlers, leaky home architects, and dairy investors he is in business with to decide government policy. And that’s not the test for a conflict of interest.
As Espiner points out:
“I also made another point on each of those occasions, which I’ll reiterate here: it’s not the actual conflict of interest but the perception of a conflict that counts. It’s not as if Key doesn’t understand this. But it just keeps tripping him up.”
For a country to be confident that its decision makers are not being influenced by personal gain, they are meant to step aside when a decision comes up that has a bearing on their personal or financial interests (like how Chris Finlayson belatedly stepped aside in the Justice Wilson issue because Wilson is his mate).
Given, as now appears to be accepted fact, Key’s trust isn’t blind; he knows he owns large stakes in Highwater, Dairy Investments, and Earl of Auckland. Therefore, when decisions come up that having a bearing on those companies, Key ought to be stepping aside to eliminate any chance of his conflicting interests affecting the decision. It would seem that Key has not being stepping aside when he ought have. And that’s a very serious issue that cuts to the heart of trust in government.