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Transparency, Eyes Off the Ball, and Perceptions of Corruption

Should Kiwis be worried if government policy formation is being heavily influenced by private sector interests to their own ends?

Or if highly sensitive government information is up for sale to the commercial interests affected?

Because its happening. Behind closed doors. And politicians, our servants, seem to lack enthusiasm to stop it.

Under our noses, over a decade or two, a vast amount of policy advice that was once sourced from career public servants has been contracted out to multinational commercial consulting companies. But successive governments have done little to guard against policy being manipulated for the benefit of private interests, nor highly sensitive public data being shared with private sector interests for commercial gain.

Part of the issue is the revolving door of people moving between the public sector, consultancies, and the private sector. Inevitably – we’re a small country. But there seem to be few constraints on what knowledge, insights, or sensitive data they can take, nor on how they may use it, nor on stand-down periods.

This situation leapt in front of my eyes last year when then Commerce Minister Kris Faafoi bailed out of parliament mid-term and almost immediately set up shop as a consultant, openly peddling “insights” and influence to people he had dealt with as Minister weeks before. At the time I was working in support of the Commerce Commission’s efforts to deal with market failure in the grocery industry – failure that comes with a price every time we reach a supermarket checkout.

Imagine the potential damage. A Minister who has undoubtedly seen highly sensitive advice from Treasury, MBIE, Crown Law, the Commerce Commission, and others.

What damage does that do to the incoming Minister’s potential options?

Imagine too, how people who may have shared highly sensitive commercial information with the Minister, in the expectation of confidentiality, now feel?

I’m not picking on Faafoi – in fact he has done us a favour by shedding sunlight on the need to deal with a practice that has been growing in the shadows for decades.

Then came the scandal across the Tasman - global consultancy PWC allegedly shared highly confidential information received as part of its contracted work for the Australian government with numerous private sector clients, allegedly including Google.

All that provoked me to contact our supposed guardians against corruption – the New Zealand arm of Transparency International. Thgese are the people who assure us every year that we live in one of the world’s least corrupt countries. I sought out their CEO, Julie Haggie who gave me a positive and empathetic reception. Julie suggested I join TINZ as a “member with delegated authority” then draft a paper for them about the need for enforceable rules and the form these might take – a few days of pro bono work on my part.

I was lukewarm. I’m a semiretired citizen who has worked around the edge of the political system for much of my 60 year career. I could think of many people, more recently close to the scene and reasonably independent, who could do it better than I. But when a few days later Transparency’s Vice Chairman, Brendon Wilson, followed up by email to reiterate the invitation, I agreed. All that was required, Brendon assured me, was signoff from the TINZ Board.

So far so good. But fast forward a few days, and Brendon told me he had been surprised how hard it had been to get the proposal past his Board.

And then, surprise! It turned out that the Board had received a counter-proposal - just in the days since they were alerted to the suggestion from their CEO and Vice Chairman. One of TI's current Members with Delegated Authority, Ellie McKenzie, would instead lead the proposal. Ellie, according to LinkedIn, comes from Australasian policy consultancy Allen and Clarke, (Yes, a consultant.) What’s more, over the past few days someone had recruited four other people to join her, all of them commercial consultants.

So my input would be diluted by being on a committee with 4 consultants, one of whom would chair the group. TI wouldn’t name the other three, but obviously they were from firms that would be a target of the very constraints to be recommended.

Did TI not see the conflict?

Its not just Transparency International that seems to have let New Zealand down. Where have other trusted supposed public watchdogs been? The Auditor General? The Public Service Commissioner? Crown Law? Politicians themselves?

Or has the freedom to walk back and forth unconstrained among these sectors, with a briefcase and a brain full of sensitive information as part of the deal, become so entrenched in the Wellington beltway that nobody wants to lift the drawbridge or apply constraints for fear of limiting their own next lucrative career move?

I’m not suggesting people should be barred outright from moving among sectors – we are too small a country for that. But we do need an enforceable, transparent code that ensures the protection of highly sensitive insights with stand down times, secrecy declarations, and sanctions aligned to the gravity of the offence for breaches. And very transparent policing.

Especially now that the term “ethics” seems to have disappeared from the language of politics.

Who will lead this? Does any political party have the integrity to make it a campaign promise for this election? My vote is there for taking. Remember – “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”


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