Mai Chen Seminar 7th May 2012

Recap of the Mai Chen TI-NZ Seminar 7th May 2012.

Mai opened her presentation by asserting that “The future is coming to Transparency International New Zealand.” Her new book, The Public Law Toolbox, was, Mai said, mainly about transparency and accountability in government.

One of the key drivers of policy and law is increasing expectations amongst the public of transparency in government and business— for example the Members of Parliament Remuneration Bill, which will establish an independent remuneration authority to replace the current arrangements in which MPs are seen to set their own terms and conditions. This is no longer viewed as publicly acceptable, and all sides of the political spectrum have come to realise that it is in their interest to introduce greater transparency and accountability. Similarly, the Local Government Electoral Act 2001, S. 109, covering donations is being described as out of date, yet is only 11 years old. Where do the increased public expectations of transparency and accountability end?

Mai discussed the private member's Lobbyists Bill. She described the Australian approach as lighter-handed, being a Code of Conduct embodied within a statute. The US has a legislative approach—but then they have clear “cash for access” issues. Is this the experience in NZ? We are small, and our consistently high ranking on TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index suggests we are free of corruption – although Mai wonders if there is an element of self-reporting in the CPI; she does not think enough people in NZ are aware of what constitutes a conflict of interest. Mai is not sure we need a Lobbyists Bill, but she expects that we will get one, partly a reflection of the impact of the global financial crisis on public opinion.

She considers that businesses in NZ still think they can do private sector deals with the government, don’t realise that they cannot and that the government is like no other entity business does business with.

Mai sees a clear trend toward heavier regulation in NZ. Professions are no longer trusted to regulate themselves, with very few self-regulatory arrangements left in place—for example the Law Society is now subject to co-regulation.

Returning to the theme that the future is coming to TI-NZ, Mai noted that the government is putting out more and more information and social media are making it easier to organise public opinion, and hold officials to account. IT developments, therefore, have levelled the playing field, reducing the extent to which government is the leviathan. While big business is still influential, it is harder for it to influence policy than in the past.

Looking at the Public Toolbox overall, Mai stated she considers that NZ needs a constitution. She also considers the Official Information Act should be extended to cover the information held by the Speaker, the Office of the Clerk and the Parliamentary Service Commission (as recommended by the Law Commission).

There are not many gaps in NZ’s public law toolbox. However a key issue is the need to fund the entities that do exist, rather than setting up new ones: for example the Ombudsman’s Office cannot process all the complaints it receives. The Judicial Conduct Commissioner comprises one person and a tiny budget. The Protected Disclosures Act is hardly ever used – despite the fact that the OAG Fraud Survey found that 22% of respondents observed fraud in their workplace and did not report it. Perhaps the thresholds in the Protected Disclosures Act are too high.

There is merit in considering a one stop shop approach to public complaints. Members of the public do not know where to go with their various complaints. Too often they end up going to a lawyer, to court, and fail at great cost. Small agencies confront critical mass issues and it could be more effective to set up coordinated responses rather than the knee-jerk reaction of setting up yet another small complaints body.


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