Bryce Edwards ' Opinion

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Political roundup: Is NZ really the least corrupt country?

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The legal trial of John Banks is just the latest political scandal that involves allegations of corruption being asserted. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The legal trial of John Banks is just the latest political scandal that involves allegations of corruption being asserted. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Never before has the word 'corruption' been in so much use in New Zealand politics. The legal trial of John Banks is just the latest political scandal that involves allegations of corruption being asserted. There are plenty of other political controversies at the moment where allegations of corruption are a factor.

Yet, today the Berlin-based NGO Transparency International has declared, once again, that New Zealand is the least corrupt nation in the world, ranked equally with Denmark. You can see the Transparency International report here: Corruption Perception Index 2013. For further details and discussion of the results and what they all mean, see my blogpost, Political corruption in New Zealand - 2013. In this I point out that an apparent paradox exists whereby New Zealand has experienced an explosion of political finance scandals over recent years, yet Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) suggests New Zealand is relatively immune from corruption. I look at some of the reasons why this might be. The blogpost also includes some information on how the use of the words corruption and corrupt have exploded within the media over recent years.

Senior public servant Beith Atkinson has also blogged to discuss two important questions about the latest report: Is there a rash of corruption if only New Zealanders looked for it?, and Why are we not excited about again topping the Corruption Perception Index?.

In addition, it's worth asking 'why' New Zealand has achieved its excellent low-corruption status.

One government agency - the Ombudman's Office - is claiming some of the glory - see Stacey Kirk's NZ public service least corrupt: survey. The Minister of Justice is also celebrating the latest ranking and proclaiming what her government is doing to advance the corruption-free goal - see Judith Collins's NZ tops global ranking for transparency, again. And PR professional Mark Blackham says the achievement is down to societal factors rather than what politicians do - see: Honesty is cultural, not political.

Of course, the CPI isn't the only measure of corruption - Transparency International released its Global Corruption Barometer in July, with some very interesting results for New Zealand, especially for the institutions of political parties, the media, and Parliament - see: Corruption in New Zealand survey. And next Monday, the local chapter of Transparency International is publishing its extensive National Integrity Systems assessment, which is an attempt to provide a much more nuanced and sophisticated assessment of all the areas of public life that help prevent corruption arising. (I've contributed chapters to the report relating to the media, political parties, and the Electoral Commission.) For some other recent scholarly research on corruption in New Zealand, see Robert Gregory's working paper, Assessing "Good Governance" and Corruption in New Zealand, and Gregory and Dan Zirker's Clean and green with deepening shadows? A Non-complacent view of corruption in New Zealand.

Corruption doesn't only impact on politics and the public sector. Today, Dylan Cleaver reports on NZ's biggest sporting scandal: NZ stars targeted in cricket cheating probe. See also, Matt Richens' NZC won't name players in corruption investigation.

The Government has already responded to developments - see Greg Stutchbury's Reuters article, NZ to ramp up anti-corruption fight. But there are many other areas in which the Government might want to make reform if New Zealand is to keep it's low-corruption status - as pointed out by Rob Stock in his column, Century-old corruption law carries wrist-slap penalties.

John Banks legal trial

The downfall of Act Party leader John Banks is due to the upcoming court trial over allegations that he knowingly submitted a false electoral declaration about political donations. Such 'electoral fraud' charges add to an array of existing allegations of corruption in New Zealand politics - with the idea that politicians and wealthy individuals are illicitly buying and selling favours. This is well backgrounded by Tim Watkin in his blogpost, John Banks and the lumpy mattress of deceit. And you can watch TV3's 5-minute recap of the whole issue: John Banks donations story, as broken by Campbell Live. See also Patrick Gower and Tova O'Brien's review, Banks 'thoroughly honest guy', Key says.

The other important items on the Banks prosecution are Adam Bennett's Fast-track plan for Banks' trial and Graeme Edgeler's John Banks: what next?.

David Cunliffe's election day tweeting

The Police are investigating Labour leader David Cunliffe for violating electoral law in the Christchurch East by-election. In tweeting what is categorised as an 'election advertisement', Cunliffe broke the law that prohibits such campaigning during polling. The Electoral Commission has referred the matter to the Police. Although such violations of electoral law might technically fit into some definitions of 'corruption', it's worth keeping some perspective on the extent of wrongdoing - which is very nicely parodied by Scott Yorke's mock statement from the Labour leader: "You will never take me alive!".

Cameron Slater has contributed two very good blogposts on the issue. In one post he seeks to refute Cunliffe's argument that he broke the rules by mistake or ignorance - see: Cunliffe's defence shot to hell. In a second post he points out that the Police do not have a strong track record of investigating and taking action on electoral law violations, and he suggests another agency be given that responsibility - see: Is it time for a change to electoral law?. That's why a private prosecution might well eventuate - see Stacey Kirk's Serial litigant takes aim at Cunliffe. See also, No Right Turn's blogpost, Prosecuting Cunliffe and Andrew Geddis' Cunliffe's folly.

Corruption in local government?

Allegations have been swirling around for years about corruption in the Kaipara District Council, in relation to its private public partnership in building the council's Mangawhai sewerage scheme. The millions of dollars that were illegally raised and spent by the Council have been retrospectively approved by Parliament last night - see Audrey Young's MP's validate Kaipara rates.

This law has passed at the same time that National MP Mike Sabin is attempting to get central government to payoff the $30m council debt, and just one day after the Auditor General has released her 420-page report on the scandal - see Andrew Laxon's Auditors failed to spot Kaipara debt blow-out. Of particularly concern is the fact that auditors from Audit New Zealand (the business division of the Auditor General's Office) failed to carry out proper checks that might have prevented the scandal occurring.

Not everyone is satisfied with the report. Some are calling it a whitewash - see Radio New Zealand's Auditor-General apologises to Kaipara ratepayers. Stephen Franks has blogged to admonish the Auditor General and says it: 'is a stunning vindication of several determined Kaipara people, and in particular of whistle-blower Clive Boonham. Instead of snarling at the incompetent office-holders of the Kaipara District Council the Audit Office watch-dogs were inside fawning on them. How secure are our traditions of incorruptibility, and accountability, when the watchers are asleep or lickspittles?' - see: Kaipara victims of government non-performance. Many in Kaipara are calling for the Auditor-General to resign over the matter.

Other fraud investigations

The eight-week High Court trial of South Auckland political activists accused of electoral fraud is nearly finished. For the best coverage of the trial, see Michael Field's Candidate charged in vote fraud. And for the latest, see Newswire's Lawyer warns of prejudice in fraud trial.

The government inquiry into alleged misspending by the Kohanga Reo National Trust is still proceeding, and a draft report is expected early next year - see Radio New Zealand's Kohanga report due within weeks. Maori Television's Native Affairs programme broke the story - which you can watch online: Feathering the Nest Part 1 and Part 2.

Revival of the right?

Yesterday's retirement announcement by John Banks has set off a major discussion on the future for parties to the right of National. The discussion has been fuelled by further controversy about Colin Craig's Conservatives - see Kim Choe and Simon Wong's Colin Craig clarifies moon landing comments and Scott Yorke's parody Statement from Colin Craig.

The big question is whether a new rightwing party might be launched and who it might involve. Matthew Hooton has been at the centre of speculation about a new party for some time now, and he escalated discussion yesterday when he published an opinion piece on the NBR website entitled, NZ needs a new Bob Jones (paywalled). Hooton's column reads as an announcement of a new 'classical liberal' party - one that would be both economic and socially liberal, much like Bob Jones' New Zealand Party of the mid-1980s. Hooton says: 'it is clear that the 19-year ACT project has lost its way. A new vehicle is needed. Surely there is at least 5% of voters to the right of John Key. When Sir Robert launched his New Zealand Party, he was 44 years old and part of a new generation compared with the war veteran he was trying to depose. The new leader needs similarly to be in their late 30s or early 40s. They must know that Hong Kong is the model for tax policy, Singapore for law and order, China for welfare and the Netherlands for personal freedoms. They must know that the current government's tendency toward corporate welfare and cronyism is dangerous and wrong'.

Hooton was supposed to make an announcement tomorrow, but has since tweeted (@MatthewHootonNZ) to say 'no "announcement" tomorrow. Clas-lib movement must reflect on next steps for longer'.

Hooton says that 'Act is dead' but not everyone is convinced, and there's a slew of article today that speculate on who might replace John Banks as leader of Act and candidate for Epsom next year. The best of these are Audrey Young's Rodney Hide's fans keen for a comeback after Banks' departure, Andrea Vance's Commentator puts hand up for ACT, and Tracy Watkin's ACT life support still on. Meanwhile, Martyn Bradbury outlines Why the Left should fear Matthew Hooton as ACT Party leader.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Declaration: Bryce Edwards is a Board Director of Transparency International New Zealand. But the analysis here is his personal opinion.

Bryce Edwards

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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