As the song goes: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it has gone.” Until recently, New Zealand has enjoyed an enviable reputation as one of the least corrupt nations in the world, but it is rapidly being eroded. We were at the top of international rankings until a few years ago, but we have slid down the list. Our most important safeguards against corruption and sound democracy are being undermined. We need to take action before our reputation for good government, as our reputation for a clean, green environment, is destroyed.
Media freedom is crucial but with increasing levels of surveillance in New Zealand that freedom is being eroded. When Fairfax Media political reporter Andrea Vance revealed dozens of New Zealanders were illegally spied upon by the GCSB, an investigation ordered by the Prime Minister’s office asked for details of her movements around Parliament and her phone calls from her office. Parliamentary Services handed it over. Recently, investigative journalist Nicky Hagar won a legal case against the government after his house was raided. There is disturbing evidence that government is acting to muzzle critical media reporting.
This is also evident in other areas of society. A report last week by leading scientist Shaun Hendy cited a long list of evidence showing independent science being suppressed, and scientists targeted for speaking out, bullied or their funding withdrawn. Scientists that disagree with the government or big business on issues such as climate change, pollution of freshwater and obesity have been muzzled. This is dangerous. We need independent science for good policymaking in New Zealand.
Secrecy and influence by big business is on the rise in other areas of policy. For example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) was negotiated without access to documents for six years. The government is now trying to push through the TPPA without an independent assessment of its impacts and against the views of a majority of the public who oppose the TPPA. Our democratic safeguards are being overridden.
The Official Information Act (OIA) is one of the cornerstones of our right to know, yet it has been regularly abused by the government. The high court found that the Minister of Trade has acted illegally in refusing an OIA request for information on the TPPA. Prime Minister John Key has admitted publicly that the government delays releasing requests as long as it can, when it suits it to do so politically. Earlier this year, Transparency International scolded the government for “astonishing complacency.”
The recent leaks of papers on tax havens show New Zealand has been deeply involved in facilitating tax evasion and hiding of illegal funds. It is also deeply worrying that the Prime Minister’s lawyer intervened to lobby against an investigation by the Inland Revenue Department, citing a discussion with the Prime Minister. Political influence over government policy has also been evident in other cases such as the deal with Sky City over a convention centre and political donations linked to visas.
New Zealand benefits from our reputation for low levels of corruption. Therefore, recent abuse of transparency and democracy by the government should be of concern to us all. We need to have zero tolerance for the corrosive effect of creeping corruption in our institutions. It is time to clean up our act and restore confidence in our political integrity.
Barry Coates is the former CEO of Oxfam New Zealand and is now establishing a Sustainability Programme at the University of Auckland Business School. He is next on the list of Green Party candidates to get into Parliament.