National would double the Serious Fraud Office's budget to investigate more cases of fraud, bribery and corruption - saying the watchdog is currently "meandering along with six cases a year".
"The SFO takes very few prosecutions, not because there isn't fraud, bribery and corruption in New Zealand, but because the office doesn't have the resources to do its job properly," National leader Judith Collins said in a speech this morning at her old employer, MinterEllisonRuddWatts, in Auckland.
"The office needs more investigators and more resources to work with its domestic and international counterparts.
"We will not stand by and allow an entity with the powers of the Serious Fraud Office to be continually, let's say, allowed to meander along with six cases a year. We expect better. We don't blame the Serious Fraud Office, we blame those who have chosen not to give them the budget that they deserve."
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National has pledged to double the SFO's budget from $12.7 million a year, to $25m, and would rename it to the "Serious Fraud and Anti-corruption Agency", which Collins said made clearer the focus wasn't only on white-collar crimes involving private companies.
"The office's mandate and focus goes well beyond the world of investment, accounting and banking. It also tackles fraud, bribery and corruption in local government, community entities and iwi trusts."
The SFO has launched a number of recent investigations into political donations, with the activities of National, Labour and NZ First all coming under the microscope.
The office had previously indicated it would decide before the election whether to lay charges relating to the NZ First Foundation, but Collins said her announcement had nothing to do with that.
She had no evidence or indication of undetected corruption in central or local government, but said huge amounts of money were up for grabs in the form of contracts for infrastructure projects.
The SFO had previously taken successful corruption and bribery prosecutions relating to Auckland Transport maintenance and renewal contracts, for example. The office last year warned it expected up to 5 per cent of government funding to be obtained or used fraudulently.
"There is definitely corruption, I suspect, in some of the contracting that has gone on - we have seen it, over the years," Collins said. "And these are the sorts of contracts, with the infrastructure projects in particular, that people need to know that someone can actually take some action."
Collins indicated the announced budget increase would be only the first under a National Government.
A lack of resourcing meant the SFO "played second fiddle" to other agencies including Police's financial intelligence unit and took very few prosecutions, the National leader said. The office's own annual report noted its limited resources meant it focused on cases that could significantly impact sections of the economy, or the public.
"The SFO has statutory powers that other New Zealand crime fighting agencies do not, including powers to compel the production of information and to require witnesses and suspects to answer any questions put to them without the right to silence. But these powers aren't being given enough opportunity to be used.
"The Serious Fraud Office has had what is sometimes referred to as a chequered past. But, actually, I don't believe it has had a chequered past, it has had a chequered amount of support from various political parties and politicians.
New Zealand is consistently ranked as one of the world's least corrupt countries. Transparency International's 2019 Corruption Perception Index gave New Zealand a mark of 87 out of 100, tied first with Denmark out of 180 countries.
However, Collins suggested such rankings were flawed, and said our geographic isolation no longer provided the protection it once did, because of the growth of communication technologies.
"Corruption rankings are based largely on perceptions. In New Zealand's case this is in part because of the relatively small number of proven cases of serious fraud, bribery and corruption we uncover. In a way it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy - if you aren't searching for something you're unlikely to find it.
"The SFO says the threats to our reputation as a relatively corruption free country 'have probably never been greater today than any other time in our history.' National agrees, and we'll resource the office properly to do the job New Zealanders expect it to do."
Collins said she'd considered policy to establish a separate anti-corruption unit, but believed it would be difficult to get legislation through Parliament, given the extensive powers already available to the SFO.
When Transparency International released its 2019 corruption rankings in January, the organisation's NZ chair, Suzanne Snively, said our score could be improved by bolstering organisations such as the SFO.
At the time, Justice Minister Andrew Little said discussions were being had about whether the SFO had enough power.
"We have to question whether the remit of that office goes enough, whether we should be looking at an outfit that has a broader remit of that office goes far enough. Whether or not we should be looking at an outfit that has a broad remit to deal with all forms of corruption, not just the financial issues," he said.
"There is more we can be doing and looking at doing."
The Herald has previously reported concerns from senior commercial and legal figures over a declining number of prosecutions launched by the office.
Collins was once the Minister responsible for the SFO, but resigned that and other ministerial portfolios in the lead-up to the 2014 election, after an email emerged that appeared to link her to a blog campaign to undermine former SFO boss Adam Feeley.
Then Prime Minister John Key initiated an inquiry, which found that while Collins had provided information about Feeley to WhaleOil blogger Cameron Slater, "there was nothing improper about the provision of this information". Collins was later reinstated to Key's Cabinet.