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After The Field Conviction - Is Corruption Set To Increase In NZ Politics?

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford
Taito Phillp Field

Last week Taito Philip Field, former Labour MP and minister learnt of his fate - six years imprisonment for engaging in acts of bribery and corruption. Over the last five years or so, political corruption, whether by a small number of ex-MPs or state servants, has been occurring on a slowly increasing scale.

This is the case as in recent years we have witnessed the downfall of former Act MP Donna Awatere-Huata, who along with her husband, Wi Huata, was convicted of defrauding the Pipi Foundation of funds to finance their lavish lifestyles. A couple of former Work and Income employees have been found guilty of similarly embezzling funds from that agency. And just in the last year, the biggest act of public sector fraud in our history came before the courts in the form of Michael Swann's and Kerry Harford's fraud against my former employers, the Otago District Health Board. Their $16 million operation conducted over a 12 year period effectively saw the Board stripped of money that could have been used to fund essential medical treatment for thousands of Otago residents.

Still we are at the top of the scale in terms of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency International's league table of least corrupt nations. This is for the simple fact that we have not succumbed to the corrupt politics that has bedevilled many nations across the globe from the poorest to the wealthiest. Our Australian neighbours and other developed countries such as the United States, Canada and Japan have seen corruption scandals come and go over the years. In Third World nations, corruption is said to be endemnic and almost entrenched due to widespread poverty, poor public services and political cultures that are often authoritarian and non-transparent. The sad collapse of Zimbabwe due to the greed of President Robert Mugabe is symptomatic of the Third World disease of corruption.

Luckily, New Zealand has escaped this trap as it is a small country where people's misdeeds become noticed more readily. We have very good public accounting mechanisms as well which show us where every cent of our money is spent and if it is mis-spent for any reason, then the matter can be readily pursued through official investigations and/or media exposure. Besides, up until the late 1980s, we had decently funded public services which meant that public sector employees were paid well by international standards and were therefore not allured by the payment of backhanders or kick backs in return for favours as is the case in other countries. Largely, our public service still remains corruption free as corrupt behaviour is not tolerated at any level.

But for how long will this remain the case?

Recently Transparency International also published a report predicting that levels of political corruption could  increased within the next ten years in this country. This is not a surprising finding given that public spending is being cut by the present National Government and that also fiscal probity, as exercised by previous governments under the terms of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, have seen greater constraints placed on public expenditure, even in good economic times. This country has experienced a decline in real incomes as well which means that, at least in the future, more public servants might be tempted to accept bribes in return for either providing services or entitlements that cannot be accessed due to funding issues. Furthermore, as shown by recent events regarding the potential misuse of parliamentary accomodation expenses in this country, there is more scope for politicians to fiddle around at the margins of the system and this has the potential to produce a really big parliamentary corruption scandal of a type not experienced here before in the forseeable future.

That's why the conviction of Taito Philip Field and the recent indictment of another un-named MP on fraud charges could be unfortunate harbingers of what is to come. We need to tighten up our anti-corruption mechanisms now, increase funding for public services and bring parliamentary/political expenses under greater  democratic control if we are to arrest any trend towards greater corruption in this country.

These are the things we need to do if we are to avoid a repeat of the Field, Awatere-Huata and Swann cases. New Zealand is still largely corruption free - let's keep that way!

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