Reassessing corruption in New Zealand: Trading in Influence

Michael Macaulay

Michael Macaulay Associate Professor
The School of Government, Victoria University

by Michael Macaulay, Associate Professor

The School of Government, Victoria University

TINZ delegated authority for Open Government Partnership

As we all no doubt appreciate, overt and explicit corruption is, thankfully, not much of an issue in New Zealand. Even recent high-profile recent cases of bribery are outliers. The country should be proud of its well-won reputation in this regard. But this does not mean that issues of concern don’t exist.

There are, arguably, far more subtle forces at play in New Zealand and these revolve around trading in influence: literally the buying and selling of influence in public life. Ongoing research by VUW PhD candidate James Gluck is unearthing examples of trading in influence, and will attempt to assess just how worrying the problem might be.

It should be noted that New Zealand is just like every major developed democracy in this respect.  Influence markets can be found in all such nations and they essentially cover forms of potential corruption that are not only legal, but have industries built around them.

They exist wherever and whenever influence can be either sought or exerted by those with money and access. The classic examples include political party donations and funding mechanisms; honours systems and patronage; corporate hospitality; lobbying; revolving door public appointments, especially post-Ministerial appointments; and many others.

There is a myriad of assumptions around the merit of current regulations in these areas but very few facts. What does a party donation of, say, $5000 actually generate? Does it really buy you a seat at the table, or is membership of the Cabinet or President’s club or is it simply a way of buying status and an ego-massage? The truth is that we don't know, although we all probably have a strong view.

James’s latest article in the recent issue of Policy Quarterly illustrates New Zealand examples of these behaviours and sets out a research agenda for trading in influence. His next piece will be on the methodological problems that all of us in the field of anti-corruption work have faced.

Two final points are worth mentioning here.  First, is that thanks to the changes in legislation wrought by the Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Legislation Bill, trading in influence is now against the law. It is a new offence that can be found in 105(F) of the Crimes Act.

Every person is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years who corruptly accepts or obtains, or agrees or offers to accept or attempts to obtain, a bribe for that person or another person with intent to influence an official in respect of any act or omission by that official in the official’s official capacity (whether or not the act or omission is within the scope of the official’s authority).

It was included as part of the move towards ratifying the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), which also highlights trading in influence as a no-go area.

Second, is that if New Zealand has one overarching issue it is the ‘cosyism’ or ‘mate ship’ that exists in a relatively small country.  This does not have to be a problem if such relationships are managed properly with the appropriate levels of transparency and integrity. We would suggest that where trading in influence can be demonstrated, there is a corollary that the conflicts of interest inherent in these relationships are not being managed effectively.

For more information about the research, or if anybody would like to help James, please contact michael.macaulay@vuw.ac.nz

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