Grant McLachlan: NZ should raise the bar on corruption

Nicky Hager's exposure of the underside of politics led to his privacy being violated by police. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Nicky Hager's exposure of the underside of politics led to his privacy being violated by police. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Transparency International's corruption perceptions index classifies New Zealand as the least corrupt country.

My concern is whether New Zealanders know what corruption is, and if they do, whether they would do anything about it.

New Zealanders pride themselves as world beaters. We take criticism in international media personally. How many Kiwis would criticise their own country in an international survey? Perception is often not reality.

To maintain a level playing field in the private sector, anti-competitive practices and insider information are crimes. Under the Crimes Act, however, corruption only covers bribery, which is giving "any money, valuable consideration, office, or employment, or any benefit, whether direct or indirect" to an official.

But corruption is more than just bribery. Transparency International calls corruption "the abuse of entrusted power for private gain".

Transparency requires consistency and clarity of processes. The public must have confidence that decisions aren't biased, that conflicts of interests are declared, and abuses are punished.

Corruption is such a strong and uncomfortable word to many. What is accepted in one country or industry is illegal in others. In the United States, Donald Trump is discovering that what might be acceptable in the business world isn't acceptable in public office.

We are seeing how many tiers of the Trump administration can be replaced with cronies. In New Zealand, our apolitical civil service is increasingly peppered with cronies. Leaders of government and support parties on the cabinet appointments and honours committee appoint cronies to boards of Crown entities and hand out knighthoods.

There is a difference between ambassadors, who implement government policy, and obscure board positions who don't. The Lottery Commission's board looks like a political lifeboat.

The US Constitution has many checks and balances that our informal constitutional arrangements don't. While Trump struggles to get his nominees approved, our select committees don't vet. Parliament's privileges committee hasn't scrutinised false declarations to the register of pecuniary and other specified interests.

Our processes to deal with corruption are flawed. Politicians wavered over Taito Phillip Field and Donna Awatere Huata's conduct for months until the police were involved. Louise Nicholas exposed police internal discipline inadequacies which continue to be a problem.

When a judge in our highest court doesn't declare a conflict of interest, the Attorney-General shouldn't offer the judge a golden handshake to save the taxpayer the cost of an inquiry. When a dodgy mine explodes killing 29, out-of-court payments should not influence the dropping of a prosecution.

The Protected Disclosures Act was meant to protect good faith whistle-blowers when reporting "serious wrongdoing". Poor internal processes, however, have resulted in witch-hunts and whitewashes.

When confidence in systems erode, the media is often looked to as a last line of defence.

Nicky Hager's books Seeds of Distrust, The Hollow Men, and Dirty Politics were about how government policy and decisions are influenced. In response, police violated Hager's privacy when investigating a complaint.

The United States rated poorly in the areas of campaign financing, government contracts, and the influence of special interest groups. New Zealand would rate just as poorly if we raised our bar of what corruption is.

Barack Obama and Donald Trump signed executive orders banning former government officials for five years from becoming lobbyists. If Bill English enforced a similar regulation, certain former National MPs and staffers would have to quit their current jobs.

How does it look when former cabinet ministers can set up "government relations" consultancies and charge clients for "access" to cabinet ministers? What would donors gain from hobnobbing with National's "Cabinet Club"?

A think-tank or union can write a political party's campaign manifesto and voters can mandate it. Regulations and deals outside that manifesto, however, can be tailor-made to benefit a select group. Labour laws were changed to suit The Hobbit film project.

In the US, there are strictly-enforced campaign financing laws. In New Zealand, political parties in government cost less than $2 million per year to run - mostly from corporate donations into secretive trusts. New Zealand could be the cheapest democracy money can buy. And who's checking?

Each year, central and local government spend $97 billion of our money and an increasing proportion is outsourced. Vying for government assets or untendered contracts is lucrative. Regulations can create windfalls and niches.

Influence at every level of government - from the council planner to the immigration official - should be a major concern if the revolving door of officials who become consultants rely on their ties with former workmates. The two Auckland Transport officials jailed for corruption relied on such a relationship.

Favours exchanged - or quid pro quo - can be as slight as the favourable processing of a consent application or the leaking of personal or sensitive information. To debt collectors, analysts, or vested interests, such minor favours can be a huge advantage.

It is fundamental that everyone should be treated equally and fairly. After all, we're a democracy, not a mate-ocracy.

• Grant McLachlan is a former parliamentary staffer, campaign director, analyst and RMA hearings commissioner.

- NZ Herald

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