Sir Bob Jones

Commentary on issues of the day from the property tycoon, author and former politician

Bob Jones: Corruption a cancer that devours civil society

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The USA has now legislated making it a serious crime for American corporations to pay foreign bribes. Photo / Thinkstock
The USA has now legislated making it a serious crime for American corporations to pay foreign bribes. Photo / Thinkstock

New Zealand vies with Singapore each year in the annual corruption index as the world's least corrupt nation. It's arguably our proudest achievement, but I suspect few are aware of it as we simply take it for granted. This is not merely a matter of morality, rather corruption is the scourge of the world and carries a huge economic cost.

In my travels I've encountered petty corruption with officialdom everywhere. Here are some examples. Once I drove all over Honduras with Latin buff and Auckland lawyer Geoff Cone. Knowing the ropes Geoff came armed with specially manufactured, ornate, one-page certificates signed by Benito Mussolini in the name of a fictional state.

Periodically we were stopped by army roadblocks and the routine was always the same. They would hit on us for cash, we would say our money was back in the hotel, they would demand our passports and Geoff would whip out a couple of his certificates which sometimes they would attempt to read upside down.

They would then say we could have our "passports" back at such and such location on payment of $50. We dished out a fair number.

I've encountered similar roadblocks hitting on rental cars (sucker tourists) in numerous countries such as Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar and even once by the Russian army on the road from Trans-Niestra to Moldova. Shouting abuse saw them all off.

In 1978 with a girlfriend, I went to Afghanistan to fly-fish the northeastern panhandle stretching up into China. But the communist takeover occurred the day we arrived and they wouldn't give us a travel permit until they'd secured total control. While ensconced in our Kabul hotel I befriended an elderly Boeing vice-president, there for a signing ceremony for the state airline's order of new passenger jets.

He told me this was all he now did, travelling the world for such ceremonies. One evening he returned bewildered. The new communist regime had declined the standard pre-agreed bribe, which he then deducted from the purchase price. This, he said, was a first in his extensive experience with Third World state airlines.

The USA has now legislated making it a serious crime for American corporations to pay foreign bribes. This would be the end of exporting, corporations protested, and tried to have the legislation amended to allow bribes to government officials to do what they're supposed to do, rather than what they shouldn't, but the legislators stuck to their guns.

The Australians then introduced the same legislation to similar protest from their exporters. The recent scandal over the Australian Wheat Board paying bribes to Saddam Hussein is a consequence of that. Nevertheless the exporters' concerns were real.

In Hanoi in the early 1990s, returning to my hotel after midnight I stopped to look at a 20-metre-deep construction hole. Dozens of men working under floodlights were carrying the excavated soil up in shallow panniers. The Aussie site manager joined me. "This is ridiculous," I protested. "Why not use diggers?" "Mate, they've been on the wharves for nine months but we're not allowed to bribe the officials any more to release them."

In the 1970s my company let a contract to a Sydney building company. The boss told me he was just back from Indonesia where he'd secured a large government construction contract. When it came to sign the figure was now US$4 million higher than his tender. He was then handed a note with a Swiss bank account number, belonging to the President, and told he was to pay the extra $4 million into it.

Corruption is rife in New South Wales and Queensland, and scandals are frequent news items. Once I was sitting in my Sydney office when a young fellow came in.

"Andrew [the manager] said I have to get your approval," he said. This was a contract to lease a warehouse to the navy, scarcely the sort of thing they would normally bother me with. Puzzled, I asked why. "Well, we have to sling an all-expenses Fiji holiday to [a naval officer's] family," he replied.

Outraged, I buzzed Andrew and told him to go to the police. "Are you mad?" he barked. "They won't understand what the problem is."

I had exactly the same response more recently, this after a Sydney-based ex-wife wrote off my new BMW, or so she was told. Six months later I received a phone call in New Zealand from a senior Adelaide detective. He told me a local crim they were tailing was now driving my "written-off" BMW around and I'd been a scam victim of the tow-truck firm. I found out the tow company's name. When the detective called back I told him and suggested this would be an easy catch for the NSW police. "Are you mad?" he spluttered. "They'll be in on it."

The Indian Government is producing bogus banknotes for the public to give government officials whenever a bribe is sought for doing what they're paid to do. It will help break the rot.

Consider the current uproar in the Ukraine. The issue is whether to economically align with the West or Russia. The country's most unifying politician is Vitali Klitschko, leader of the fastest-rising political party. He's a folk hero in the Ukraine, having been the undefeated world heavyweight champion for over a decade. He's also no fool, possessing a PhD among other credentials. But while he aligns with the pro-western faction, Vitali is adamant that the country's main problem is corruption, which he vows to stamp out.

To combat him, the president has now enacted a law prohibiting presidential candidates whose income comes from abroad. Vitali has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in the ring, mainly in Germany where he's also a huge hero. Things are going to get nasty with elections due in 2015.

I mention all of this given the outrageously light sentence of nine months' home detention accorded on utterly specious grounds to Christchurch policeman Gordon Meyer. Offering to trade fines for sexual favours is not simply sleazy as the judge seemed to view it. It's about a principle which is absolute, regardless of its nature or monetary dimension. It behoves the Police Commissioner to appeal against this ridiculous sentence so wiser heads can send a vitally important message, namely that corruption is corrosive, strikes at the heart of civil society and will absolutely not be tolerated.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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