New Zealand corrupting itself

New Zealand’s transparency is something I take great pride in as a New Zealander. To be in the top five most transparent countries, where accountability of elected officials and those in other high positions of responsibility is paramount is no small feat when one considers the contempt for societal norms and those who abide by them that absolute power can induce. So I am sad to read – but not terribly surprised – that the level of corruption in New Zealand is considered to be increasing.

There is a quote about corruption that is as simple as it is true: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A corrupt official is not only not doing their job, but they are potentially very dangerous. Their moral compass is not working. Whatever it takes to achieve their ends they are prepared to do. If it means betraying colleagues, committing criminal offences and sometimes even endangering lives, it will be done.

New Zealand’s transparency is well recognized. Our Government is one of the most stable and accountable in the world. Election results are for the most part full, fair and final. The Official Information Act, a piece of critical legislation governing the accessibility and use of Government held data enables New Zealanders to access data for research, to see what the Government has stored about them and so forth, with fear of harm. In many countries, doing that could get you arrested and charged with treason, or other activities said to be against the State.

But there are some major problems.

Among them is the absence of protection for whistle blowers, people who see corrupt activity for what it is and try to report it to appropriate authorities. The reluctance of Parliament to pass legislation to protect these people and give them confidence that their complaints will be taken seriously is as damning in some respects as the corruption itself. Another problem is the court procedures for charging and trying in a court of law the person/people/business(es)/organization(s) accused of corruption. Again, the whistle blower needs to be confident enough that they will be able to safely testify if required.

A personal concern of mine is that this Government or future Governments might try to undermine covertly the legislative framework that makes the prosecution of corrupt officials possible. Such changes would be slipped in as several legislative changes have been done in New Zealand disguised by passing at the same time as more contentious legislation, which distracts the public attention.

And if they are successfully prosecuted, what does New Zealand law say about corruption as an offence in terms of elected and judicial officials?

For elected officials such as Ministers of the Crown, a sentence not exceeding 14 years can  be imposed. For judicial officials such as Judges, a sentence not exceeding 7 years can be handed down.

In the last 10 years several Members of Parliament have fallen by the wayside for behaviour contrary to the norms with which New Zealand expects its elected officials to conduct themselves. Labour Member of Parliament Taito Philip Field was jailed for several years for getting an immigrant tiler to do work on his home in return for help with his immigration status. Former Minister of Justice in the current Government, Judith Collins was made to resign  after her husbands company was linked to a dinner between Ms Collins and Chinese Government officials. A.C.T. Member of Parliament Donna Awatere Huata went to jail for fraud involving the misuse of public money.

It is not only misbehaving M.P.’s but a growing contempt for transparency of Parliamentary practices. Since National came to office there has been an unprecedented attack on democracy in New Zealand both outside of Parliament and inside. Outside of Parliament I will deal with in a separate post, but internally by 2010 the National-led Government of Prime Minister John Key had already nearly doubled the number of times that the previous Labour-led Government had used Parliamentary urgency to pass legislation in its nine years. It has ignored public feed back completely on a number of Bills that were sent for public submissions – although all Governments can be accused of this, the number of times set by this Government thus far exceeds previous statistics considerably.

It is perhaps becoming a bit rich of New Zealand to call itself the second most transparent place in the world after all.

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