There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a conflict of interest. It happens all the time, and the key issue is disclosure and how you manage it.
Sometimes it is perfectly fine for the conflict of interest to exist, provided there is disclosure to the relevant parties. However, accusing someone of having a conflict of interest after they have determined that they don’t is a surefire way to spark a reaction. No one likes to have their integrity questioned, but sometimes people are blinded to their conflicts as they pursue self-interest.
In light of the AFL and Amber Harrison sagas, the disclosure antidote seems to be where the consensus is at with office relationships. Of course, a conflict can exist when an office relationship starts, but just tell your boss and make sure no company resources are misused, favours granted or unfair treatment meted out when the relationship finishes.
Let’s have a quick look at four individuals to flesh out this conflict of interest issue:
The conflicts are everywhere with his business interests, but the Donald doesn’t seem to have a clue. He should have put the whole empire on the market after securing the presidency but instead views the Oval Office as a business opportunity, as Four Corners pointed out last month with his Indonesian dealings. Remarkably, Trump is also publicly bagging Attorney-General Jeff Sessions for declaring a conflict of interest on the Russian saga and failing to shut down the whole special prosecutor investigation. Trump wanted Sessions to ignore his conflict and act in a partisan way to derail any independent probe. Extraordinary stuff.
Should the president of the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party be a paid commentator on Sky News offering biting analysis about the Turnbull government and other political issues? A lot of Victorian Liberals think not, but Sky clearly doesn’t have a problem with it. Kroger is also in the midst of a pitched battle with the blue bloods who oversee the $70 million share portfolio housed in the Cormack Foundation. The likes of Hugh Morgan, Charles Goode and John Calvert-Jones are withholding Liberal Party donations until Kroger cleans up his governance by relinquishing the chairmanship of the Liberal Party’s finance committee. A perfectly reasonable position, you would think, given best practice governance mitigates a president’s power by having an independent chairman of the audit or finance committee.
In a similar vein, is it possible to be a media commentator and an AFL club president? And can you share your loyalties with competing broadcast media outlets? Eddie McGuire is paid handsomely by News Corp’s Fox Sports and is generously compensated courtesy of the stature and insights that accompany the unpaid Collingwood presidency. However, he’s now doubling up by returning to Nine as host of The Footy Show, when Nine competes with Fox Sports and has no relationship with the AFL. As the longest-serving AFL club president and after five straight years of missing the finals, it would seem a no-brainer that Eddie would fall on his sword at Collingwood and return to being a single-interest journalist/broadcaster. But no, Collingwood CEO Gary Pert has instead been punted, and there’s talk that coach Nathan Buckley is also headed for the high jump. Eddie is not being told to go by the Herald Sun, which should be pushing for change. Of course, McGuire is also a News Corp employee. If the Herald Sun called for Eddie to retire as Collingwood president, Eddie might withdraw the benefit of his services to Fox Footy.
Is it possible to be a professional independent director and a media commentator at the same time? Jeff Kennett pushes the boundaries more than most, balancing a full dance card of board seats plus two well-paid media gigs with Seven West Media and the Herald Sun. The 2015-16 Seven West Media annual report claims on page 56 that Kennett is an independent director, for which he was paid $138,278 last year. However, you can’t be an independent director if you are a service provider to the company, and page 82 of the annual report discloses that Kennett is collecting an additional $200,000 a year to be a “political commentator” for Seven. The former Victorian premier has also been criticised for being the well-paid (now former) chairman of Beyondblue who profits from the gambling industry as chairman of a company called Amtek. This is not a conflict of interest, just a question of optics given the connection between depression and gambling.
Finally, when pointing the finger at others, it is important to declare your own conflict of interest so on that last point, be aware that I’m a part-time spin doctor for The Alliance for Gambling Reform. Therefore, this needs to be clearly disclosed when any sledges of the gambling industry appear in Crikey. And the volume of these sledges should also be carefully monitored to avoid any inappropriate overreach.