4 April 2012

New Zealand scores better than the United States in a range of surveys that evaluate the ethics of public service. That is because New Zealanders understand a question about public service to relate to government agencies. They may not have much understanding of the machinery of government and distinctions, for example, between Public Service departments and other departments, or Crown entities, agencies associated with a portfolio, or State Owned Enterprises. Americans by contrast understand public service to mean officials, many of whom are  elected. Americans think of politicians as public servants. New Zealanders don’t.
A consequence is that career officials in New Zealand don’t seem to be affected much by the indiscretions of politicians. Perceptions of the trustworthiness of officials are largely untainted by generally high levels of distrust in politicians. Media reports of self centred behaviour by politicians feeds this distrust.
Survey findings published in the US last week by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) provide more evidence that will reinforce prejudices about the motivation of politicians.
CREW in the report titled “Family Affair” claims that politicians “…still haven’t learned that it is wrong to trade their positions as elected leaders to benefit themselves and their families …. conduct like this reinforces the widely held view that members of Congress are more interested in enriching themselves than in public service…”
The report is of 248 members of the House of Representatives ( of the 435 members ) improperly syphoning off millions of dollars of campaign contributions for babysitters, family trips, and well paid jobs for relatives. CREW found 82 cases of family being paid directly by Congress members and 44 cases where relatives were engaged in related activities. Examples include a Representative, salary $174,000 employing his wife as his secretary at more than $512,000, and a Presidential hopeful who employs six members of his family as campaign staff – one of whom has criticised the report as “a sad attempt by…insiders …to grab cheap headlines”.
New Zealand politicians should be chastened by the list of their ilk posted as “Significant Parliamentary Scandals” on Kiwiblog yesterday. The numerous comments then contributed by a former MP who describes himself as “a total disgrace” suggest that MPs may be attracted to notoriety rather than being notable for integrity.