Alexander Gillespie: Legal code of conduct for politicians needed

Judgment on ethics should not be left to a Prime Minister dependent on votes

Police say John Banks personally solicited donations that were recorded as anonymous. Photo / File
Police say John Banks personally solicited donations that were recorded as anonymous. Photo / File

Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority.

New Zealanders understand this more than most. We rank first in the world (out of 183 countries) in the Corruptions Perceptions Index.

This is the equivalent of a 100 per cent Pure rating in the political league of the planet. The value of this in terms of the global perception of us, and of ourselves, is beyond measure.

It is part of the core of what makes New Zealand one of the most fabulous places in the world. Whether we stay in this position and hold this value is debatable.

Political parties and parliaments are among the top institutions that are the most prone to corruption. The results, compiled by Transparency International, show that 63 per cent of the more than 100,000 people surveyed consider political parties to be the most corrupt institution in their country.

New Zealanders now need to start asking the same questions. The root of this need is that one of our members of Parliament has been cleared of any charges relating to donations to his 2010 mayoral campaign which he declared as anonymous.

This clearance is despite police finding he personally solicited the donations and in one case physically received the cheque. Yet the police are of the view that there is insufficient evidence to consider a prosecution under the appropriate legislation. This does not mean he is innocent. This just means there was insufficient evidence to prosecute.

This is an outrage. We need to know that our politicians and public officials are trustworthy. We have the rules about tracing donations to increase transparency and prevent undue lobbying and political funding from distorting the democratic process.

These are necessary because citizens expect parliamentarians to serve out of conviction and a commitment to the public good, rather than for aspirations of personal power and/or the pursuit of private profit.

In turn, they have conferred on them the legitimate authority to take decisions that determine the fortunes of both the state and its citizens. Failure by parliamentarians to live up to these expectations can seriously undermine the trust citizens have in the ability of their elected leaders to act in the public interest. It can also directly undermine the legitimacy of the state and its institutions.

This is not a new problem. The original response of democratic governments to those who abused their power was that of ostracism.

Modern democratic societies no longer ostracise the politicians who betray their trust. The contemporary feeling has been that the results at election time are sufficient safeguards.

This view is mistaken. Our democracy is too valuable for us not to take two further steps. The first is that we must tighten the legislation in this area.

The second is that New Zealand must adopt a code of conduct for parliamentarians that has teeth. Within a government, a code of conduct would strive to decrease corruption and increase accountability.

Such a code should ensure that the public's interests are protected.

The recent passage of a code of conduct for public officials in Delhi has been used as a recourse to rein in political campaigning by standing members.

Similar codes have been used to look into potential conflict-of-interest violations by heads of state, from Canada to Israel.

New Zealand has no such code.

The furthest New Zealand progressed in this area was in 2007 when four minor Parties - the Greens, the Maori Party, United Future and Act - announced they were signing a code of conduct.

In addition to promises of not advancing private interests and avoiding conflicts of interests, the signatories promised not to solicit or receive any fee, payment, retainer, reward or gift in return for promoting or voting on any bill, motion or question put to Parliament or its committees, or in return for using their position as a member.

The irony of the Act Party, replete with the histories and inconsistencies of perk-busting on the one hand and anonymous donations on the other, adhering to a code of conduct speaks for itself.

What the broader problem suggests is something larger; that a voluntary code of conduct which is adhered to by only the minor parties of Parliament is worthless.

New Zealand requires a code of ethical conduct to be written into the law. This code must be of the highest standards, established against the best international practice in this area, and supported - and enforced - by all political parties.

Punishments should range from dismissal from office, formal warnings and/or reprimands.

The ineligibility to hold public office in the future, and specific measures providing for salary penalties and demotions should also be utilised.

Such matters should not be left to prime ministers who have to navigate finely balanced parliaments.

They should be examined by a fully independent authority, whose goal is to protect the integrity of democratic process, not secure sufficient votes for the next piece of legislation before the house.

* Alexander Gillespie is Professor of Law at Waikato University

- NZ Herald

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