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Corruption in New Zealand – No Cause For Complacency

01/12/2009

Irony:  incongruity between what is expected to be and what actually is, according to my Collins English dictionary.  It is thus ironic that, a week or so after the news that New Zealand had been rated the least corrupt of the 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2009 CPI – Corruption Perception Index – the Weekend Herald should lead with the banner “Corrupt Lawyers Swindling System”.  This of course a reference to the Bazley Report on legal aid.

New Zealand has been there or thereabouts top ranking in the CPI since it was first published in 1995, which might suggest that we have little to worry about when it comes to corruption in this country.  But the index is, as its title indicates, a measure of the perception of corruption in each of the countries included so that headlines like the Herald’s can only serve to add to that perception in New Zealand’s case, which could be expected to show up in a year’s time, with the CPI of 2010.

Of course, as has been noted in the media, Dame Margaret Bazley’s report on legal aid is long on rhetoric and very short on hard data to back it up.  Take that much-reported 80% figure.  Here is the sole reference to that claim in the report (it’s at page 79):  “I have also been told that up to 80 per cent of the lawyers practising in the Manukau District Court could be gaming the legal aid system.”  Not a lot of meat there.

But it’s not just the Bazley report which could negatively impact on the perception of corruption in New Zealand.  This year has seen the first conviction for corrupt practices – and imprisonment – of a member of the executive whilst in office in the country’s history.  Former MP and associate minister of justice Taito Phillip Field’s “work for residency” scheme might be a mere footnote in the annals of corrupt political influence but it’s slippery slope stuff.  And there is the bizarre case of the now also incarcerated Christchurch police officer taking sex from a prostitute in return for forbearance in his enforcement activity.

These were of course clear-cut criminal cases (and it should be noted that the police officer, unlike the politician, was acquitted of corruptly soliciting a bribe).  But there have been some other unsavoury incidents recently given an airing in the New Zealand media.  Politicians using their travel privileges for personal pleasure and, perhaps more disturbing, a civil judgment of the Court of Appeal being set aside by the Supreme Court because of a judge’s failure to disclose his business relationship with, and indebtedness to, the lawyer for one of the parties.  The successful party, as it transpired.

In countries where corruption is rampant, it is lawyers, judges, police officers and politicians who routinely are perceived to be amongst the most corrupt functionaries.  A case in point being Bulgaria, a country I happen to know quite well, and which incidentally came in at 71st equal – along with its neighbour Romania and nearby Ukraine – in this year’s CPI.  There is an investigation under way into the relationship between a number of judges of different courts and a shady individual who, so it is claimed in the media, could procure advancement in the judiciary for a fee of 200,000 euro.  Whatever the truth of the matter, there have reportedly been some 15 resignations to date of judges known to have had telephone conversations with the man.  The sinister back story here is that he was almost certainly fronting for organised crime, which has taken a stranglehold over Bulgarian society in the 20 years since the collapse of communism.

To compare corruption in Bulgaria and New Zealand is to compare night and day.  But question marks over the integrity of superior court judges and politicians are the stuff of perception.  And New Zealand has intimate ties with a range of countries where what we would perceive as corruption are imbedded practices.  Close to home, the highest scoring of the Pacific nations was Samoa at 56th place with a perception index score of 4.5 (out of a possible 10, New Zealand scored 9.4).  But then there is a steep fall to the likes of Vanuatu at 95th, Tonga at 99th and the Solomon Islands at 111th.  And then there is Papua New Guinea, at 154th place rated amongst the most corrupt countries on the planet.  (Fiji and the Cook Islands were not included in the survey.)

And with the notable exceptions of Singapore, 3rd placed overall, and Japan, rated 17th alongside the UK, most of our major Asian trading partners scored poorly in the 2009 CPI.  Corruption is entrenched in, for example, Malaysia, India, Thailand and Viet Nam.  And corruption is normal business practice in China and Russia (ranked 79th and 146th respectively), two emerging economic powerhouses with which New Zealand has growing economic ties.  It would be naïve to think that influence peddling, kickbacks and other decision-buying are not accompanying trade and business growth between such countries and New Zealand.

There may or may not be 200 corrupt legal aid lawyers in New Zealand, as the Bazley Report suggests, and the proportion of legal aid lawyers milking the system at the Manukau district court may be nothing like 80%.  But 2009 is proving to be a vintage year for corruption-related stories in the New Zealand media.  As the old adage has it, where there’s smoke …

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