NZ's history of low corruption no longer a given

By Phil O'Reilly, November 2016

New Zealand's global reputation for being corruption-free is high up on our list of competitive advantages. In fact, I'd argue that it sits at the top – surpassing tourism and pipping primary industry to the post.

But why say this when there have been stories recently involving public officials and business people allegedly being associated with corruption offences?

Well, these reports making it into the main media highlight the fact that corruption in New Zealand is rare. We don't hear much about it in the news – not because it's not reported but because it barely exists. So, when there are allegations of corruption of any kind, there's keen interest.

Our public sector is not perfect, but because we have in place stringent procedures we can identify and expose corrupt practices, and people, early on.

The way we have designed public policy and the way in which public officials are hired, trained, monitored and held accountable means that any hint of corruption can be isolated and stopped in its tracks.

For example, take how easy it is to do business here. We've just been ranked as the world's best place for business by The World Bank. In its recently released '2017 Doing Business' report it puts New Zealand in the top spot, ahead of Singapore and Australia, because starting up a business here has far fewer procedures than other countries and the process takes only one day.

Head to a country where the process isn't so swift and straightforward and it's a whole new ball game.

In many places it can take months to start a business and involves mountains of paperwork, license applications and official permissions. And the more convoluted the process, the more each stage is open to corruption.

This is because it is precisely when bureaucracy gets out of control and becomes frustrating and time-consuming that officials – and business people – are tempted to cut corners by back door methods.

In New Zealand, even the most unscrupulous public officials intent on corruption would find it difficult to infiltrate a one day process that involved only a handful of procedures.

Regrettably, many of the tight controls and processes that exist across the public sector are not yet mirrored in the private sector.

Certainly, some of our large companies will have in place anti-corruption and anti-bribery precautions, but for many of our smaller businesses corruption is out of sight, and out of mind.

The bad news is that there's no guarantee that New Zealand's historic lack of corruption will continue into the future, particularly as our world trading options expand.

Our enviable reputation of being corruption-free stems from the simple reason that we have tended to do business with other relatively non-corrupt countries. This is changing rapidly and New Zealand companies, big and small, will increasingly do business with many different countries from around the world – non-corrupt and corrupt.

My concern is that New Zealand businesses will continue to take for granted our lack of corruption; that they will assume that trading with new countries will be similar to trading with traditional partners.

It won't be.

Our corruption-free status is already like gold dust. It is our greatest competitive advantage. We must start to recognise this and take steps to preserve it.

We need to implement our own rules; rules that are compliant with global best practice but that sit well with our own culture.

We don't need to over regulate but we do need to self regulate. We need to take steps to strengthen our private sector. We need to do this voluntarily.

And we need to do this now.