NZ Herald | 22 Feb 2016
Is the National Government harming New Zealand’s corruption-free status? Recent reports and controversies suggest that the Government has some transparency and accountability problems.
New Zealand’s reputation for low levels of corruption was hurt last month when the annual Transparency International Corruption Perception Index was published. New Zealand fell from 2 to 4 in the global rankings. I covered this news with my own interpretation of it in my column New Zealand tumbles down the political corruption table.
There was much comment on the report, with various attempts to explain New Zealand’s descent, as well as some challenges to the report and the explanations. But since the publication of the report there have been further stories and controversies that contribute to the idea that New Zealand has a less than perfect anti-corruption environment. These have mostly revolved around the Government’s reputation for how it handles information, how it conducts its business deals, and how government agencies operate.
Open or closed government?
The most recent challenge to the Government’s reputation for openness comes via the publication of a rather scathing independent report on its progress towards increased transparency, as part of it’s membership of the Open Government Partnership – see yesterday’s RNZ report, Govt pays lip-service to transparency, says report.
The New Zealand Government is effectively being told off for not meeting the obligations it has committed itself to in improving public sector and government transparency. I’m quoted in the above article as saying that the new report is “a black mark” against New Zealand, and that transparency is crucial to democracy because it allows the public to see how decisions are made and prevents corruption.
For the full story on the Government’s actions (and inaction) see the full PDF report: Progress Report: New Zealand 2014-2015. The author of the report, Wellington lawyer and academic Steven Price, has put together an excellent summary of it on his blogsite – see: Open Government Partnership report.
In this, Price also outlines the process by which he came up with his evaluation and explains why the “report is not flattering for the government”. It appears that the Government has not taken the exercise seriously, and is largely complacent about New Zealand’s reputation for integrity. Price also puts forward five suggestions for what the Government could focus on to improve transparency and openness in government and public life.
The Glucina text made public
We now know that Rachel Glucina – as well as Cameron Slater – is one of a select group who were given access to the Prime Minister’s mobile phone number. On Friday the public learnt the details of the text Glucina sent to Key during the Ponytailgate controversy: “Just interviewed the waitress. Piece of work! Massive political agenda”.
The revelation is of importance, particularly because the Government had fought to keep the text secret – see the Herald’s Ponytail-gate text to PM revealed.
The most interesting analysis of the issue is by the Herald’s David Fisher who has written an extensive opinion piece on his Facebook page – see: Why I can’t text John Key (and other musings on the Glucina text).
Fisher discusses the availability of the PM’s mobile phone number, and how John Key keeps changing it. Fisher, himself has had the last three numbers for Key, two of which he obtained via the Teapot Tapes incident and the Rawshark hack of Cameron Slater’s computer, but says unfortunately he’s not one of the chosen journalists, bloggers, or public relations practitioners who receives an update when Key gets a new number.
But the more substantial point that Fisher makes is that the Government doesn’t seem to understand either the Official Information Act or the Public Records Act, otherwise Key wouldn’t have had trouble releasing Glucina’s text: “Whether it be text messages or a folded note slipped from one palm to another, it’s still communications with the Prime Minister. This has been publicly accessible “official information” for more than three decades.
It’s bizarre there should have been consideration of keeping it secret at all. New Zealand should never be a country in which it is considered okay for media and its most senior (or any) politician to carry out secret discussions without any public oversight. The content of the message is telling – it suggests an obeisance which shouldn’t exist between politicians and media and certainly never in secret. But put this latest finding in the context of other recent findings. It is my opinion it raises questions about the advice the Prime Minister is getting on important democratic principles.”
Could it be that the Government was protecting a journalist’s privacy and confidentiality? This is examined in Claire Trevett’s Text decision ‘should make all journalists careful’. In this, it is made clear that not all text messages to the PM should now be public property, and it depends on the individual circumstances.
The integrity of government agencies
A number of recent stories about various government agencies and contractors acting without integrity, or being involved in fraud, should be of concern to the public.
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has just released the first details of its Transparency Project, in which the agency is attempting to find out how much government agencies are obtaining personal details of citizens by making official requests to private companies such as banks, airlines, and internet providers. This was sparked by the scandal over the Police obtaining the private banking details of Nicky Hager – as covered late last year in my column, Libertarians against dirty politics.
You can see the official first PDF report here: Transparency Reporting Trial. This is covered very well by Nicholas Jones in his article: Government made 12,000 privacy requests to just 10 companies. The ten companies that took part in the three-month trial registered 11,799 requests for information from government agencies, including the Police, of which only 449 were declined.
Potential conflicts of interests continue to plague some agencies and Simon Collins reports on concerns about recent grants made by the Whanau Ora programme – see: Family ties queried in $1.3m grant.
The Defence Force was told off last week by the Auditor General for awarding a contract to a company owned and operated by one of its own air force flight sergeants – see Isaac Davison’s New Zealand Defence Force broke conflict of interest rules.
Fraud continues to occur in the tertiary education sector, where some contractors are being asked to pay back about $28 million – see Kirsty Johnson’s More tertiary providers under investigation by Serious Fraud Office. And it seems that such fraud will continue to occur, despite authorities launching an increased number of audits – see Jo Moir’s Tertiary Education Commission says it can’t promise there won’t be future rorting.
Often such fraud is detected and brought to attention by whistle-blowers in the sector, but it’s not clear that the Protected Disclosures Act 2000 is really robust enough to make the process work properly – see John Gerritsen’s No protection for whistle blowers, committee told.
This is expertly discussed by No Right Turn in the post, The TEC and whistleblower protections. He concludes “if whistleblowers exposing fraud in the tertiary education sector are being persecuted, it suggests that existing protections are not strong enough. In Australia it is a criminal offence to retaliate against a whistleblower. That seems like a really good idea.”
No Right Turn continues to pursue the cause against government agencies charging for Official Information Act requests. He’s carried out a survey of every public service department to see how often requests are incurring charges – see: OIA charging: Who charges for OIA requests?.
Unsurprisingly, many of the agencies were very poor in collecting or communicating the information – two agencies (Corrections and Environment) never even replied. But of the information available, he finds: “Out of 7,991 OIA requests made to 26 responding agencies, at least 30 attracted charges, a rate of about 0.4%.”
The Government’s refusal to release information under the OIA about the resignation of MP Mike Sabin has been ruled as correct – see Felix Marwick’s Ombudsman sides with govt over Sabin disclosures. He says: “Newstalk ZB has taken the issue to the Ombudsmen, but Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier has ruled disclosure of details would prejudice maintenance of the law. He’s declined to give full reasons for his ruling, saying they would likely prejudice those interests as well.”
This hasn’t pleased No Right Turn, who says: “Sabin’s resignation raises very real questions of accountability that the public deserves answers on. We can’t get them now, for obvious reasons. But hopefully we’ll be able to get them in the future, and hold the Prime Minister to account if he has displayed poor judgement” – see: Mike Sabin and the OIA.
The various watchdog agencies that try to keep government departments honest are currently receiving a fair bit of evaluation. The Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) has recently spoken out about its underfunding, which appears to be causing it to abandon some investigations, or pass those functions back to the Police – see Sam Sachdeva’s Police watchdog IPCA skips investigations due to financial pressures. See also No Right Turn’s Another starving watchdog.
The State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie has announced that he’s stepping down, which has led the Dominion Post to call for a stronger replacement – see the editorial: Wanted: a robust and brave leader.
A leading candidate might well be the current Auditor-General Lyn Provost, who is in her final year in that position – see the very good profile of her by Nikki MacDonald: Auditor-General Lyn Provost on cop culture, rough mornings and policing power. Of particular interest is the revelation of the increase in complaints made to her agency: “281 requests for inquiries in the 2014/15 year, compared with 181 the previous year. Of those, 119 related to central government – almost double the usual total.”
Saudi sheep deal
Lyn Provost is soon to give her report on the Government’s controversial Saudi sheep deal. Meanwhile opposition parties are ramping up their criticisms. Last week in a select committee, David Shearer labelled the deal “corruption”, and James Shaw said it was “a straight-out bribe” by the Government – see Jo Moir’s Government accused of ‘corruption’ over the Saudi sheep deal. Also of note, “MFAT chief executive Brook Barrington stepped in to exercise legal privilege and refused to answer any further questions on the possible court action.”
There is also confusion as to whether NZ Trade and Enterprise has suspended funding for the project, as stated in one of their recent board papers – see the NBR’s No ‘active suspension’ of Saudi agri-hub funding – Joyce.
But the upcoming Auditor General report has the potential to hurt Murray McCully’s reputation, or even cost him his job, and for Gordon Campbell that would be a case of “history repeating itself” – see: On bribing the Saudis. Campbell explains: “In 1998, a third term National government was one year away from being turfed out of office, and Murray McCully – the prime architect of the Saudi deal – was at the centre of a scandal involving ‘hush money’ payouts to Tourism Board members. These payouts were later deemed ‘unlawful’ by the Auditor General. McCully resigned as Tourism Minister in April 1999 in the wake of that finding.”
Nick Smith is another minister under fire for alleged misuse of taxpayer resources. Last week Smith was accused by Labour’s Kris Faafoi of taking ministerial staffers to National Party fundraising functions at the taxpayers’ expense – see Vernon Small’s Taxpayer paid for Nick Smith’s press secretary at National Party dinner.
Corruption ranking debates
New Zealand’s fall in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index was possibly best covered in the news by Tess Nichol’s Stonewalling and strange deals: Has NZ become more corrupt?.
But has the whole debate been overcooked? That’s the argument of National Party columnist Liam Hehir – see: Calls of New Zealand being corrupt nothing but a beat-up. He admits the Government needs to be concerned about declining public confidence in integrity, but says “Questioning whether New Zealand is becoming a ‘corrupt country’ is beyond ridiculous.”
Similarly, Justice Minister Amy Adams was defensive about New Zealand’s fall under National’s watch, saying “This is a survey that is not terribly clear in its methodology. It’s had quite a lot of criticism. It’s actually, surprisingly enough for Transparency International, not terribly transparent” – see the two-minute TVNZ item and article by Katie Bradford: Govt stands firm on Saudi business despite corruption ranking.
And there’s some useful discussion about shortcomings in the Transparency International methodology in Campbell Gibson’s Corruption index a self-fulfilling prophecy and Pete George’s NZ ‘slide down anti-corruption ranking’? .
But for an interesting discussion of why the fall in the rankings is a problem see Hamish Rutherford’s Slide down anti-corruption ranking should be a wake up call.
The local New Zealand chapter of Transparency International discusses the issues further in the newsletter Transparency Times, which includes an article by Ferdinand Balfoort titled “Does globalisation drive New Zealand’s corruption perception ranking?” These globalisation arguments were backed up last week by the head of the Serious Fraud Office – see: Immigrant attitudes to corruption worries SFO. And John Anthony reports that Half of New Zealand businesses would not report illegal requests from customers.
Finally, for some humour on the Government’s release of Rachel Glucina’s text, see the parody of other secret texts to John Key by “GCSB Intercepts”: The lost texts: PM v Glucina.
• Declaration: Bryce Edwards is a Board Director of Transparency International New Zealand but the analysis here is his personal opinion.