20 May 2011

The Westminster model was championed in many former British territories as the best way to manage good government.  It has strengths that many seek to emulate. Support for the democratic process, respect of the rule of law, and a commitment to professionalism are inherent characteristics.  But it has its weaknesses. Transparency International (UK) this week has reported on the undermining influences of revolving doors, of influential politicians marketing their connections to the corporate sector.  TI states that urgent reform is needed if conflicts of interest are not to further diminish public confidence in government.

A TV documentary last year included secret recordings of senior British politicians who believed they were being offered business opportunities.  Their comments strongly suggested that the system was being corrupted. One former Minister, offering to sell his influence said “I’m a bit like a sort of cab for hire”.

There are few items disclosed in register of New Zealand MPs’ interests published this week which would suggest that lobbyists and others are “buying” favours.  But the situation in Canada is more concerning. MPs there are required to declare any travel given to them valued more than $500.  In the last 4 years 172 MPs declared 336 trips costing $1.9 million. The funding comes from foreign governments, business and advocacy groups. One MP was gifted nearly $72,000 worth of travel.   Democracy Watch has described the Canadian regime as  a “blatantly unethical system of allowing lobby groups and interest groups to buy influence…”

These practices influence public perception and may contribute to poor opinions of politicians and political parties.  In a UK survey political parties were ranked as the most corrupt sector in public life, with Parliament ranking third. The revolving door was ranked second among potentially corrupt activities: awarding a peerage in return for a large political party donation was ranked worst.  These views are reflected in Britain being placed 20th on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – below countries like Qatar without a long politically liberal history.

Last week in two Australian states, controls on lobbying were tightened.  The Victorian Budget speech indicated that legislation would be introduced to give effect to the Coalition’s manifesto proposal for a lobbying code, a register of lobbyists and a prohibition on success fees relating to public tenders and projects. In New South Wales the new Government has already strengthened lobbying regulation and legislated against success fees.

Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as members of the OECD are expected to give effect to the OECD Principles for Integrity and Transparency in Lobbying  that provide a structure to minimise the sort of incidents reported by TI (UK).  European states, which form the majority in the OECD, feature in the 2011 Ernst and Young European Fraud Survey published yesterday. Two thirds of respondents across 25 European countries agreed that bribery and corruption were widespread. Complacency about corruption is suggested by nearly half  those surveyed, who indicated that businesses do not provide fraud training. Over 40 percent felt that bribery and corruption had worsened over the last two years .

Agencies in New Zealand must be mindful of these trends. It is for that reason that the State Services Commission Statement of Intent published following yesterday’s Budget indicates that its Integrity and Conduct programme is a critical underpinning of all its work across the State sector.