Bryan Gould
Bryan Gould, CNZM, writes an occasional column on current events

Bryan Gould: Govt serving interests of the rich

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Brian Gould: Those whom the government wants to protect seem to escape prosecution. Photo / iStock
Brian Gould: Those whom the government wants to protect seem to escape prosecution. Photo / iStock

There is never any shortage of international surveys ranking countries according to such matters as their freedom from corruption, the probity of their public life or the effectiveness and quality of their democracy.

We see frequent reports of them in our media because, I assume, we usually come at or near the top of such ratings. If we are not actually at the top, it is usually because we have been pipped by one or other of the Scandinavian countries.

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A friend of mine runs one such international survey and has often congratulated me, as a Kiwi, on yet another good result for New Zealand. I haven't heard from him on this subject, however, for a year or two, and I notice that we have slipped a little recently in other such surveys I have seen.

The revelation that New Zealand is regarded as, and indeed is, a tax haven for people overseas who want to avoid tax or otherwise hide what they are doing will not, of course, help our reputation in these matters. The worrying thing is that this news comes on top of a series of developments that also point in a downward direction.

It was bad enough to find that a Cabinet Minister allegedly could not keep her ministerial responsibilities and her private and family business interests separate - even worse to see that Judith Collins, after a minimal stand-down time, is back as a senior member of Cabinet, apparently unscathed and with reputation intact.

It has also been of concern that our police force seems so anxious to please the government of the day that it will harass those who are seen to cause it annoyance; the cases of Bradley Ambrose and Nicky Hager show how far the executive's interests now dominate our public life, even at the expense of personal liberties.

Those whom the government wants to protect, however - think Peter Whittall - seem to escape prosecution.

And that is to say nothing of the continuing erosion of those liberties in the supposed interests of security, or of issues like the replacement of representative, democratic bodies like District Health Boards or Regional Councils by government appointees when the government wishes to push its agenda and does not seem ready to trust the democratic process.

Then we have those increasing instances where private profit is at stake and the government accordingly chooses to bend or not to enforce laws designed to protect the environment. If a buck can be made, then kauri logs or fresh water supplies or our coastal environment can, it seems, be sacrificed to the government's version of the greater good. Surely, their attitude seems to be, wadeable rivers are good enough?

There are also those issues where the government gives priority to looking after its friends, rather than to the wider public interest. Think farming and the issues of safety at work and climate change and, even more starkly, Warner Brothers and the government's willingness to meet their demand that employees' rights should be reduced.

Then there are the cases, increasingly frequent, where ministers take total executive power and are unaccountable to anyone as to how they use it. Paula Bennett's power to sell off publicly-owned houses to whomsoever and on whatever terms she pleases is a good (or bad) example.

Perhaps the most obvious example of unfettered executive power was the Prime Minister's secretly negotiated deal with Sky City, granting them extended gambling facilities in return for a Convention Centre. No one else got a look in - certainly not the public - to the extent that even one of the PM's own ministers expressed disquiet.

One of the more worrying aspects of this pattern of behaviour is that the democratic process is more and more often sidelined in favour of those who can use their money to buy what they want. If you have the money, it seems, then anything goes. This is the very antithesis of democracy - and providing tax havens for the super-rich is a classic example of that mentality.

We see this approach in many parts of our policymaking and public life. One of the most hotly contested issues worldwide at present is who should or should not be allowed to enter a country and to seek residence and eventually citizenship. That question is largely resolved in our case by putting a price on it. If you have the money, it is more or less the case that you can buy the right to live here.

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No one of these instances, taken in isolation, would necessarily set the alarm bells ringing. But it is their cumulative effect that leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that we are now at the top of a dangerous slope and sliding down; that, without realising it, we are becoming just like other countries where it is accepted that government serves the interests of the rich and powerful and the rest of us must live with it.

Apologists for what is happening may say, in private if not in public, that this is the modern world and we had better get used to it. I believe, however, that most Kiwis would rather we stuck to our standards - and they don't include acting as a tax haven for the disreputable. This is one competition where it is good to be best. It's one of the things that makes us what we are.

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

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