Bryan Gould: Thin end of the corruption wedge

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Government must be absolute on standards of ethical business behaviour when dealing with other cultures.

Judith Collins maintains that she had not considered a possible conflict of interest over her visit to company Oravida in China. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Judith Collins maintains that she had not considered a possible conflict of interest over her visit to company Oravida in China. Photo / Mark Mitchell

As an MP in Britain, I offered a free weekly advice service to constituents who needed help. I was occasionally embarrassed by a constituent who seemed to think that any request for help should be accompanied by a gift of some sort. The offerings were usually small in value, and were almost invariably made by a member of the immigrant community. I would gently explain that, while such gifts might be acceptable - even required - in some societies, they would breach the conventions of public service in Britain.

As far as I know, these anti-corruption conventions still apply in Britain and certainly do in New Zealand; indeed, our country regularly comes at or near the top of international surveys showing that we are remarkably corruption-free. So what are we to make of the growing evidence that the culture here is changing and that there is an insidious growth in the belief that politics and business are natural bedfellows?

The Justice Minister's travails are just the latest piece of evidence. Her failure to recognise a conflict of interest when she went out of her way on a recent ministerial visit to China to visit a company of which her husband was a director shows how far we have relapsed from a proper recognition of the dangers of corruption. Judith Collins' excuse - that she simply had not thought about the possibility of a conflict of interest - shows how far our standards have slipped.

"One of the most obvious and effective ways of getting around the rules is to secure the support and help of those who make them; and if that support can be made more likely by rewarding the rule-makers with acts of generosity, then who can be surprised?"
Bryan Gould

The revelation that other Chinese businessmen have been able to lobby the Government for favours, and have then shown their gratitude for those favours by giving large sums to the National Party, demonstrates that a serious line has been breached; in issues involving a conflict of interest, it is the perception that matters.

No one who does business in the international context will be unaware of the fact that different standards apply elsewhere; the temptation - and sometimes, it may seem, the necessity - to pay bribes when expected in order to secure desired outcomes is no doubt ever-present.

We would be foolish to think that the lower standards in public life that are commonplace in other parts of the globe could not establish themselves here. It is perhaps not entirely an accident that the recent causes for concern have involved Chinese business people.

"The impression already given to overseas business interests - and confirmed by many recent instances - is that the way to get things done in this country is to get the ear of the Prime Minister or of his close colleagues and advisers."
Bryan Gould

Like many other countries, China - as a country and as a culture - has a view of the law that is quite different from our own. Rules are not so much to be complied with, but rather to be circumvented wherever possible. With the growing involvement in our economy of Chinese business, we are becoming increasingly familiar with the tendency to disregard the rules - whether they concern minimum wage rates or planning requirements or anything else. One of the most obvious and effective ways of getting around the rules is to secure the support and help of those who make them; and if that support can be made more likely by rewarding the rule-makers with acts of generosity, then who can be surprised?

The danger is, in other words, that along with the undoubted benefits we gain from Chinese investment and business acumen, we may also be invited - almost imperceptibly - to accept somewhat different standards governing the relationship between our rule-makers and the business interests that are increasingly important to our economy.

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That danger can be averted and minimised only if the other party to these transactions - the government - is absolutely clear about the standards of ethical behaviour required of those who do business in this country - and it is here that the recent revelations assume a much greater importance.

The impression already given to overseas business interests - and confirmed by many recent instances - is that the way to get things done in this country is to get the ear of the Prime Minister or of his close colleagues and advisers. In that way, private deals can be struck, rules can be changed or bent, tax benefits can be conferred, ministerial interventions to grant citizenship can be arranged - and if a generous donation is given to a political party by way of thanks and recognition, then who can complain?

In view of the Government's apparent belief that business advantage trumps all other considerations, and that their role is to serve business interests, we must expect many others to follow in the footsteps of SkyCity and Warner Brothers and to find ways of securing Government help. Who can blame them if they also conclude that - as is commonplace elsewhere - a discreet donation would not come amiss?

Unless our Government becomes much clearer than it currently is, watch for the New Zealand ranking in the anti-corruption stakes to plummet - and the loss of one of our most prized virtues.

Bryan Gould is a former UK Labour MP and former vice chancellor of Waikato University.

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