3 June 2011

The Oxford English Dictionary defines corruption as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery”.  A pretty good explanation is that corruption is a manifestation of deceit by those who know better! The effect is to undermine social values, threaten the rule of law, and erode trust in political institutions. It creates a business environment that advantages the corrupt. It devalues scientific research, weakens the professions and obstructs the emergence of the knowledge society. It reinforces human misery and inhibits development. Corruption succeeds most under conditions of secrecy and general ignorance.  A characteristic of deceit is that its practitioners object to transparency as a constraint on their individual rights. They oppose openness as a restraint on their freedom.

British media today report the imprisonment of Lord Taylor. He was considered one of the most promising Tory politicians of his generation. He has now been jailed for a year for fraud.  He fiddled than £11,000 for travel and overnight allowances. He lived in London but claimed expenses for living in Oxford – at an address he had only visited twice.  Details came to light when claims were made public. British MPs’ claims, now published, are substantially lower. New Zealand MPs’ travel claims, also published now, have diminished in a similar way.

The sentencing to two years three months of a Rimutaka prison officer, convicted of smuggling drugs into his workplace is another sad example. The senior investigator involved implied that the cause was greed.

In December 2010 several senior officials objected to the State Services Commissioner’s requirement that periodically they declare their travel expenses and benefits derived from hospitality and gifts. This is a well established and quite uncontentious practice in Canada and a number of other jurisdictions. For some reason these officials felt suppression of information about benefits they received (as a direct consequence of their government employment) was necessary to protect their rights, that disclosure breached their privacy. This was unexpected because all State servants are subject to the trustworthy obligations of the code of conduct.  It seemed extraordinary that chief executives would not be conforming to standards that applied to their staff.

The Commissioner’s guidance about benefits is emphatic:

“… We must not seek or accept favours from anyone, or on behalf of anyone, who could benefit from influencing us or our organisation. Organisations’ policies on accepting gifts and hospitality vary, depending on their business. In all cases, it is expected that gifts will only be accepted following a transparent process of declaration and registration. To avoid misperceptions, it is essential that the process is public…”

The unacceptability of this type of benefit  was detailed in earlier directions by State Services Commissioners in 2003, again in 2007, and the SSC video “Walking the Line”.  Ministers have disclosed that officials working in their offices disregard this requirement.  For example,  Ministerial staff have been accepting hospitality at rugby events – unacceptable in itself but made worse because of the absence of any transparent disclosure.  The OECD Principles of Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying published earlier this year have direct application to these circumstances and the reports of relationships between Westpac and Ministers.