New Zealand is back on top. The 2016 Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International puts New Zealand in first place as the least corrupted country in the world, after the "drop" to fourth place of last year, writes Carlo Berti.
While this may be a relief for New Zealanders who feared that corruption (defined by Transparency as the "abuse of entrusted power for private gain") was rapidly spreading in the country, it is no surprise for an immigrant like myself.
Coming from Italy (a country that ranks 60th in the CPI and where corruption is widespread at all institutional levels), I never doubted that New Zealand would be back on top, or at least not in a worse position in the short term.
The reason is simple: New Zealand has been stable in the top positions of the index for many years, and this suggests a strong resistance to corruption. A resistance that, among other things, has a lot to do with its culture.
When I ask New Zealanders about corruption in their country, I usually hear one of two answers: "New Zealand is corruption-free", or "New Zealand is full of hidden corruption". I tend to agree with the first statement (although one has to be aware that no country is completely free of corruption).
However, it is the second one that makes me believe that New Zealand's clean reputation will not be at risk for a long time to come.
In Italy, corruption is considered a fact of life. Cases of petty corruption such as bribes paid to obtain driver licences without tests, or cases of grand corruption such as politicians bribed in exchange for contracts or other favours are common, and people have come to believe that this is just normality. Italians are angry, of course, but they have lost hope.
New Zealanders, instead, consider corruption something foreign to their way of life and to their nation. Those who claim that in New Zealand there is a lot of corruption simply have the highest standards of honesty: they expect corruption never to happen, and the smallest suspect, the smallest instance of influence peddling, regardless of its penal relevance, is considered unacceptable and treated with no tolerance.
The pride for a clean reputation is accompanied by an extreme attention to every situation that could threaten New Zealand's enviable position.
The shadow of corruption in the Saudi sheep case raised a heated debate over the opportunity of that deal, although allegations of corruption were eventually dismissed.
The Taito Phillip Field case - a case that in Italy would most likely have passed unnoticed - filled the pages of newspapers from 2006 to Field's conviction in 2009, raising a huge debate over the importance of ethics and honesty in New Zealand, and marking the end of Field's political adventure.
In 2010, Pansy Wong resigned as MP after being accused of misusing a relatively small travel perk (in Italy, in 2015, almost 60 Regional Council members in Lombardy went to trial, accused of misusing office-related perks for a total of about $3 million, including for buying video games, beauty creams, cigarettes and - I swear - paper airplanes). When honesty is a deep-rooted value, dishonesty is punished and corruption is discouraged.
A strong reputation of honesty, however, can also have disadvantages. A country like New Zealand, where honesty is often taken for granted, must always be careful not to underestimate potential threats. These can come from inside or outside the country, as the student visa fraud recently reported by the Herald has shown.
Therefore, while New Zealanders can be proud of their position on the index, it is important to always keep attention levels high, applying a zero-tolerance policy to every corrupt action.
A nation's resistance against corruption is rooted in the values of a society, it is built, nourished and reinforced over time. And New Zealand, once again, presents itself as an example to be followed.
- Born and raised in Italy, Carlo Berti is a doctoral candidate at the AUT school of communication studies.