Transparency International New Zealand (TINZ) has urged and continues to encourage government watch dogs to keep vigilant while the coalition Government is spending rapidly to buffer the economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on households and business.
With the uncertainties of the virulent pandemic - highlighted by the latest outbreaks - watchdog roles are essential.
More than ever we need transparent information while unprecedented amounts of public money are being spent or lent and government bonds being issued.
The public has a right to know about how funding requests are assessed, how money is allocated, and demonstration that the outcomes achieved are supporting employment and ensuring the vulnerable are as protected as possible against the spread of the virus. This transparency is important for the prevention of corruption.
A challenge for government officials is communicating in ways that are transparent, not only to experts but also to the wider public.
OAG reports released
In addition to its COVID-19 related reviews, the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) recently published four reports, all of which are available on the OAG website:
- Managing the Provincial Growth Fund
- New Zealand Transport Agency: Maintaining state highways through Network Outcomes Contracts
- Inland Revenue Department: Benefits management for the Business Transformation programme
- Using information to improve public housing services – Progress in responding to the Auditor-General’s recommendations
While these reviews were underway prior to the COVID-19 crisis lock downs, the OAG has made recommendations to strengthen transparency, reporting, and evaluation pertinent to the current crisis.
Transparency is essential to preventing corruption
In general, the reports show solid performance and progress in the areas audited. They also report the need for more transparency, both about financial accountability and about determining the value of outcomes.
Regarding the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF), the impact of COVID-19 is making it more difficult to obtain consistent data to evaluate the effectiveness of the Fund’s investments. There is risk that officials will not now be able to identify the extent to which the $3 billion of investment represents value for money or contributes to improved regional and national outcomes.
As part of its multi-year examination of the PGF, the OAG will next focus the Cabinet decision to redirect up to $600 million from the PGF to the COVID-19 response package. Another part of the PGF, $70 million related to the Coalition Government’s manifesto to commitments, was centred on by the Auditor General as being particularly lacking in transparency and accountability. He stated: “In my view, in the interests of transparency of the overall process, it is important for the public and Parliament to have better visibility of how all the parts of the Fund operate."
The Auditor General also found that Inland Revenue needs to achieve a significant benefit from its Business Transformation programme between now and 2023/24, when its monitoring of the programme’s benefits is due to finish. The OAG will not be able to say with certainty that the significant investment in the programme represents value for money until the benefits from the completed project are measured.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice has been coordinating New Zealand’s response under the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) Review Mechanism.
The delay of over 10 years before New Zealand finally joined the rest of the world in ratifying UNCAC, was explained as the cost of participating in these regular reviews and actioning of resultant commitments. Nobody would have envisaged the huge benefits of this anit-corruption mechanism for this virulent Covid pandemic.
TINZ is advocating for New Zealand to sign up to the UNCAC Coalition Transparency Pledge.
This important pledge reaffirms: the importance of transparency and public consultation in addressing corruption. Civil society can play a crucial role in preventing and combatting corruption. It can also make a contribution as an observer of the UNCAC review, holding briefings and public debates aimed at successful implementation of the UNCAC provisions.
The challenge under the current pandemic time and resource constraints is for the Government to make the time to meaningfully engage with civil society about the role and value of this convention in protecting New Zealand.
Acknowledging Anti-Corruption Leadership
With the closing of the 52nd session of Parliament, I’d like to especially acknowledge three parliamentarians who have made a huge difference to prevention of corruption in New Zealand through building stronger integrity systems.
As Deputy Speaker, Hon Anne Tolley led the development of a code of conduct for Parliament and progressed the Global Organisation of Parliamentarians Against Corruption (GOPAC), achieving significant progress in both areas.
Hon Clare Curran showed strong leadership with the Open Government Partnership, which resulted in New Zealand’s National Action Plan 3 leaping ahead with 12 solid commitments. These include: the School Leavers (Civics) Tool Kit and initiatives towards a more accessible Parliament; and a policy to ensure the algorithms used by government agencies meet standards that protect the interests of New Zealanders.
Hon Amy Adams stewarded the passage of omni-bus anti-corruption legislation that included extensive anti-money anti-money laundering provisions. With this, she achieved a unanimous vote from Parliament in November 2015 to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. This now provides a form of protection for small countries like New Zealand from the inevitable activities of the corrupt given the massive flows of international funds intended to buffer the impact of the virus.
Suzanne Snively, ONZM
Transparency International New Zealand Inc.