Does New Zealand need a national Anti-corruption agency?

There is strong advocacy among anti-corruption advocates for agencies that aim to prevent and stop corruption, a key to creating a healthier democracy. An effective anti-corruption agency (ACA) is independent, adequately funded, transparent and empowered to thoroughly investigate.

The November TINZ board meeting included an informative presentation and discussion about the imminent creation of an Australian anti-corruption agency. Hon Stephen Charles AO KC from the Centre for Public Integrity in Australia was our guest presenter.

Both the Centre for Public Integrity and Transparency International Australia have invested years pushing for an anti-corruption agency in Australia. Transparency International Australia has been at the forefront of advocacy on this issue, including a formative submission to the Joint Select Committee on National Anti-Corruption Commission Legislation.   

Caption: Hon Stephen Charles AO KC

The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) gives global recognition to the idea of an  anti-corruption body or bodies to both prevent and combat corruption. According to Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Agency Strengthening Initiative (ACASI), UNCAC “envisages anti-corruption agencies as a key player in the fight against corruption.“ 

Australian Pork

No, not meat, pork barrel.

Stephen Charles elaborated on the serious questions of integrity and the long process leading to the establishment of the Integrity Commission in Australia. Work remains to ensure  the result is a body able to be effective against corrupt activity. View his presentation and the ensuing discussion on Youtube.

Stephen Charles discussed two major Australian pork barrel incidents that highlighted the need for an anti-corruption agency. Pork barrelling is not a term used in New Zealand, it refers to the utilisation of government funds for projects designed to please voters or legislators and win votes.

Prior to the 2020 elections - and only discovered afterwards – the Sports Minister completely ignored the recommendation from the Sports Commission on the allocation of $100 million to local sporting bodies, instead allocating the funds to focus on marginal electorates held by the Coalition as well as those electorates held by other parties or independent members that were to be  “targeted” by the Coalition at the 2019 Election. 

Little over a year later the Auditor General found that an urban fund had distributed $8,000M allocated for car parks based largely on political patronage.

Fallout from these events contributed to a significant drop in Australia’s position in the Corruption Perceptions Index from 7th in 2012 to 18th in 2022.

New Zealand - Is there a need?

The presentation about corruption issues in Australia led to the obvious question about whether there is a need for an anti-corruption agency in New Zealand.

New Zealand remains solidly at the top of the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and has not seen major corruption incidents similar to those of Australia. Neither Denmark or Finland - consistently at the top of the CPI along with New Zealand - have a dedicated ACA although both have a national anti-corruption strategy (and consider facilitation payments bribery).  New Zealand does not yet have a national anti-corruption strategy despite it being promised for many years.

It has been argued that  between OAG, SFO, the Ombudsman and the New Zealand Police, New Zealand has sufficient agencies able to address corruption. This is partly supported by ACASI when analysing ACAs in the Pacific in 2017.

Anti-corruption commissions usually investigate alleged political and public sector corruption and are founded by statute or constitutional status.

New Zealand has not seen public sector or political corruption similar to Australia, but does face private sector corruption cases which are summarised in reports from the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Intelligence Unit. Gaps in political integrity oversight remain with examples being issues around Parliament and political party funding and elections. Without a national strategy and a coordinated risk assessment approach, how do we know the size of the problem and protect our country from emerging risks?

We think this discussion needs to start. New Zealand’s corruption prevention mechanisms need to be independent, comprehensive, future looking and well funded. We can do this either through an anti-corruption agency or by further funding and empowering existing agencies.

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