What Were WE Thinking? - Institute on Governance

What Were WE Thinking?

2 minute read

The Prime Minister has already given us the right answer on the WE debacle: he ought to have recused.

At least, that looks like the right answer. As other commentators have noted, we don’t really know precisely, or even roughly, how this decision was made.

For any who’ve been incommunicado on, say, a cruise ship over the past two weeks, we refer to the government’s decision to have WE Charity run a $900 million program designed to pay young people to volunteer (sic). It did so without a transparent process, and the Prime Minister seems at a minimum to have “participated in the discussions” leading to that decision, notwithstanding the fact that he (and his wife, and his mother, and his brother) have longstanding links with that organization. In the case of his mother and brother, these links included speaking fees totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars, albeit possibly from (or intended to be from) WE Charity’s corporate sibling, ME To WE (sic again). An added dimension was that the Minister of Finance also had family links to WE.

We (the IOG) have no capacity to assess the qualifications of WE (the charity) for the job, or whether it was necessary to outsource the work in the first place. The issue, as so often in the public sector, is not the merits of the decision but the integrity of the process.

We do know, however, that the Prime Minister, like all ministers of the Crown and myriad senior officials, is subject to the Conflict of Interest Act (COIA). Among many other provisions, the COIA prohibits public office holders from making decisions (or influencing the decisions of others) where there is “an opportunity to further his or her private interests or those of his or her relatives or friends or to improperly further another person’s private interests”. Well, ahem…

Again, we don’t know the particulars of this decision. It may well be that WE was the best organization for the job. WE has claimed that public servants have “openly” stated that they recommended WE on the merits. If so, that would be odd, because public servants aren’t supposed to disclose their advice to ministers. It would suggest that there was at least some sort of assessment process; but public service advice does not override recusal requirements.

Conflict of interest rules work best within a culture of ethical awareness, combined with robust practices to remind people, including very senior people, to be vigilant about their obligations This would include other decision makers in the government not being influenced by knowledge of their leader’s preferences, no mean consideration. In any case, the Prime Minister has done a mea culpa, so perhaps we can hope for such vigilance next time.

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