9 December 2013

Today is World Anti Corruption Day. Ten years ago the United Nations assigned 9 December as the day to raise awareness of corruption and the role of the UN Convention Against Corruption in combating and preventing it.  The Convention came into force in 2005.

New Zealand however has not yet enacted legislation which will facilitate full compliance with the UNCAC.  And the tardiness to do so was one of the substantive findings of the Transparency New Zealand “Integrity Plus” National Integrity Survey assessment published today.  The Integrity Plus NIS has been a major undertaking by Transparency New Zealand.  It has taken a large group of enthusiasts much of the year to collate and write up data. The assessment runs to 374 pages.

The assessment is substantially more comprehensive than the initial NIS conducted of New Zealand in 2003, or in any of the many other countries where NIS assessments have been carried out.  The Integrity Plus NIS assessment is based on an evaluation of the 12 pillars of institutional integrity applying a Greek Temple model devised by the late Jeremy Pope, when a director at Transparency International, in the late 1990s. These pillars reflect not only the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, and the public sector but also law enforcement, the electoral system, Ombudsmen, the Auditor General’s office, political parties, media, civil society and business. These last three “pillars” provide a pan societal perspective.

The conclusions seem to be somewhat self-fulfilling.  Transparency New Zealand has been concerned about an impending surge of corruption for a number of years.  Although New Zealand continues to be rated by international assessors as sharing with Denmark the accolade of having the World’s least corrupt public sector – and has done for a number of years – there is a suspicion that this cannot really be the case – that there must be an undisclosed shaft of corrupt practices running through government.  The problem is that evaluation methods used internationally don’t reveal the nature or scale of corruption which those methods show up in other jurisdictions.  In the end the fall back position is perception and a sense that the devil must be at the door.

In the Integrity Plus NIS, Transparency New Zealand seems hard pressed to substantiate concerns about growing untrustworthiness of public officials. It has reported that political party funding threatens the parliamentary process, and that the purity of free and fair advice being given to Ministers is diminishing.  But the evidence purporting to support worsening corruption was primarily the delay in the ratification of the UN Convention against Corruption – to which many other countries can be seen to have committed as a prerequisite for admission to the WTO –  and in growing referrals of suspected corruption to the Serious Fraud Office.

It may not be wholly cynical to say that latter measure has an element of agency self promotion. Hon Phil Goff at the Select Committee review last week of the SFO ( a sponsor of Transparency New Zealand, along with 22 other State sector organisations ) questioned whether the alleged rise in fraud and corruption was significant, or simply a rise from a very low base. The SFO which takes a zero tolerance approach to corruption, said that any increase is significant. Its explanation included a reference to more people in New Zealand from overseas requesting things considered corrupt in New Zealand, but not elsewhere, although the incidence of fraud “cannot be said to be solely a result of international influence”.  That was not a particularly convincing justification for reporting a growth in public sector corruption.

A benefit of the Integrity Plus NIS assessment is not in what intensive inquiry has found, but what has not been found, despite the best endeavours of well qualified researchers.  The flavour of the report reflects public concerns voiced by Transparency New Zealand for several years. The data on which the report is constructed discloses nothing new. The baggers and bloggers who repeatedly belittle the commitment to integrity of officials and the abiding strength of the spirit of service among all but a minute percentage of State servants will no doubt allege that the Integrity Plus NIS is the product of more patch protection by bureaucrats.

The purpose of the Integrity Plus NIS however is to evaluate the pillars of good government.  There are many measures that have been implemented in other jurisdictions which if adopted here could reinforce government institutions and harden them against the corrosive effect of corrupt practices.  But then many of the countries that have endeavoured through such measures to prevent corruption, have poorer good government ratings than New Zealand and have neither the quality of life of their citizens of nor the ease of doing business for their commercial interests of New Zealand (although Forbes Magazine this week has downgraded New Zealand to second best place for business, behind Ireland and ahead of Hong Kong.)