Tuesday 26 February 2013

Digging With Teaspoons

An Honest Shovel: The intimate nature of New Zealand society has taught it's citizens to call corruption by other, less troublesome, names. When asked to dig, the responsible agencies almost always set out with a teaspoon - not a spade. Who knows what levels of corruption an honest shovel would now uncover in "the least corrupt nation on earth"?

A GROUP of wealthy ranchers and industrialists importunes the man most likely to lead their party to the White House. He hears them out politely, takes a contemplative sip from his glass of whiskey, and replies: “Boys, I’d like to help. But, like every man, I have my price. If you want me to run, it’ll cost you a well-watered ranch in prime cattle country.” The party big-wigs exchange glances and nods. Their spokesman rises from his big leather chair, extends his hand towards the beaming candidate, and exclaims: “Done!”
Now who would you say this politician was? A Texan, surely? Lyndon Baines Johnson? George W. Bush? Some corrupt citizen of the Lone Star State where elections were regularly franchised out to party bosses who, when it came to vote-rigging, only ever had one question: “Do you want us to count ‘em, or vote ‘em?” (Meaning: Do you want us to stuff the ballot boxes, or merely round up the required number of bribed and/or intimidated electors?)
Well, to be honest, this story isn’t about Texan – or even American – politics. I only used words like “ranchers” and “White House” so that you’d have no difficulty in recognising all the behind-the-scenes deal-making for what it was: political corruption.
Had I told you from the beginning that we were talking about New Zealand farmers and businessmen, and that the politician negotiating the price of his co-operation was the future National Party Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, then you would already be objecting: “So what? That’s not corruption. It’s not illegal to buy somebody a farm!”
I remember my old editor at The Independent Business Weekly, Warren Berryman, shaking his head in wonderment when, once again, some international outfit declared New Zealand to be the least corrupt country on Earth. Warren was born in the United States and had lived what might, euphemistically, be called “a colourful life”.
“This is one of the most corrupt countries I’ve ever lived in”, he told me. “It’s everywhere you look – but you Kiwis just don’t see it. New Zealand tops all these surveys not because it’s corruption-free, but because New Zealanders have become experts at looking at corruption and calling it something else.”
How much longer, I wonder, is the rest of the world going to be hoodwinked by Kiwis’ perverse willingness to substitute an ornamental teaspoon for a spade?
Imagine a foreign corporate investor reading an account of the New Zealand Government’s management of the process of securing a world-class convention-centre for its largest city. Can’t you just see his eyes flicking back to the top of the story to make sure that he’s reading about New Zealand – and not some dodgy regime in the developing world.
Because, let’s be honest: if we were reading about a Prime-Minister meeting privately, over dinner, with the operator of the country’s largest casino; if we learned that his government was seriously considering changing the gaming laws to the advantage of said casino operator in return for it stumping-up the cash for said convention-centre; if we discovered that civil servants were operating outside official procedural guidelines and that Treasury concerns about this lack of proper process were being ignored; then wouldn’t the last place we’d think we were reading about be “the world’s least corrupt nation” – New Zealand?
And hasn’t the Deputy Auditor-General, Phillippa Smith, proved the late Warren Berryman absolutely correct by first detailing an extraordinary series of highly irregular activities on the part of New Zealand politicians and civil servants, only to conclude that she has no “substantive” issues with the outcome?
And doesn’t it remind you of those movies in which an obese southern sheriff interposes his sweating bulk between the bloodied bodies lying face-down in the street and the gathering crowd of townspeople, saying: “Nothing to see here, folks. Y’all just run along home now. Everything’s under control.”
Because isn’t that precisely what Prime Minister John Key’s Mr Fix-it – Steven Joyce – has been telling us to do all week?
And isn’t that because New Zealand is much closer to that sleepy southern town than we’d like to think.
Ours is an extremely intimate society in which “ordinary” citizens know (and are known by) all manner of “important” people. In such close-knit communities it is often unhelpful to rely too literally on the black letters of the law. When everybody knows where everybody else’s bodies are buried, setting forth in search of wrong-doing with an ornamental teaspoon arguably makes more sense than marching off with a spade.
And once the tradition of digging with teaspoons becomes established the use of a spade becomes even more dangerous. Who knows what dirty deals, sleazy quid-pro-quos and ghastly miscarriages of justice might be uncovered if an honest shovel was ever allowed to turn over the topsoil of “corruption-free” New Zealand?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 February 2013.


Brendon said...

I remember The Independent Business Weekly. I used to write letters in and if they were particularly good I would get sent a bottle of Drambuie for best letter in the week.

Once I queried something that Don Brash said, which Don replied too. The Independent reposted my letter, because Don had not answered the question and gave me another bottle. Good times!

Brendon said...

National has a big problem with crony capitalism. The unsavoury link between business and the party's leadership, that bypasses due process. But Labour has equally had unsavoury links between the public service and their party. Wellington wasn't called Helengrad for no reason.

The problem is we have an elected dictatorship. We are more like Russia than Australia. There is no counter balancing power to the Prime Minister. Here in New Zealand to get ahead in the civil service, politics or big business it is all about your relationship with the Prime Minister.

And it is getting worse, under MMP the party leadership controls the list. And our weakening links to Britain mean we no longer have an independent justice system.

This is a big problem because the major advances in Western society occurred when the political process went from king/dictator/courtier patronage model to a more shared ruled based and finally democratic model.

I think a simple thing we could do to improve things in New Zealand is to have the Governor General and the Speaker be nominated by a greater majority in Parliament. Say 75%. And for one of those to be responsible for independent appointments in the Judiciary and Civil service.

This would greatly reduce the power of our elected dictators. Small parties in New Zealand like the Green party should insist on this as part of their coalition agreements.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Chris. Relatedly, there is the tendency for us to attribute the cause of this type of thing to 'old boys clubs' as though it was an inescapable aspect of life in NZ. There is some kind of self-mutilating character to the our collective psyche. If our on national economic well-being is threatened we just don't seem to give a toss. Are we paying through the nose for absolutely everything? Why yes we are. Oh well, we probably deserved it.
We like to think of ourselves as easy going hobbits but in reality we've more in common with Gollum.

Jane England said...

Once again Chris, you tell it 'like it is' with a fitting salute to Warren Berryman thrown in. Keep up the great stuff and hopefully some of us will wake up.

Unknown said...

No political party should be anywhere near the gamling industry. They need to be seen to be above being subverted; as well as actually not being subverted.

That gambling industry is all about manipulating people to go against their self-interest and the biggest fools are the ones who think they have too much nouse to be tricked.

You don't play with the gambling industry and win, anything they pay out, they claw back.

Anonymous said...

One substantive issue should be those who have spent money tendering when it's a done deal. Wonder if they can sue?

Jigsaw said...

I can't disagree with the main contention that there is corruption in this country but I think it absolutely stunning that you could write this without even once referring to the corruption that surrounds various governments dealings with Maori groups of all sorts. Give us this and we won't do this or take you to the Waitangi tribunal-which by the way is rigged in our favour........and so it goes. Have you forgotten?

Anonymous said...

Key really does see himself as chief executive of New Zealand Incorporated. He wheels and deals and rationalises assets as if he were running Fletchers. He genuinely expects our applause. I used to hope that some part of the National Party might understand the difference between business and government, but the Holyoake story reminds me what a forlorn hope it is.

TM said...

I do actually think NZ has a relatively low corruption on a world scale - but that has more to do with the amount of corruption in other countries.

But I am surprised at the lack of uproar over the whole casino business. I thought the public would have been more outraged, and the opposition more vocal. Nick Smith was forced to resign over a misjudgement about one person, but John Key et al get away with a much worse abuse of office?

The only thing stopping the other tenderers from suing the government is probably the carrot of more work (especially around the chch rebuild).

Anonymous said...

Our style of corruption allows us to fool ourselves. We don't have brown paper envelopes changing hands too often (hopefully), but from what I've seen inside local government corruption is rife, if you include the absolutely routine gaming of the system by the well connected.

Johnz said...

Why is it that the difference between powerful people and me is Chris Trotter.... and Mary Wilson on radio. Without you guys I would blub into my hankie everyday!!!

Anonymous said...

Please Chris - put a reference to the Holyoake scam. where else can i find this ?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
Please Chris - put a reference to the Holyoake scam. where else can i find this ?

Chapter and verse at

Sparky said...

A full story on the Holyoake Affiar is here: http://werewolf.co.nz/2012/04/public-office-private-gain/

Chris Trotter said...

Bloody Hell!

My story pales into insignificance beside this little beauty!

Anyway, the details concerning Holyoake's other farm - can be found in Barry Gustafson's "The First 50 Years: A History of the New Zealand National Party", Reed Methuen, Auckland, 1986, pp 33-34.

In this one, Gustafson cleverly allows Holyoake to speak for himself.

Grant Hay said...

Just been to look at the Paul Hamer article / essay. Thanks to those who made the referral.

Un-be-liev-able! But I believe it.

As my daughter used to say when she was learning to talk;

"I feel like to be sick."

gnomic said...

A poster above mentions time out for Nick Smith. Haha. Have you noticed he's back? And about to turn the full force of that mighty intellect on whether the bulldozers should devastate Fiordland. I'm guessing the answer will be yes. Maybe I'll be proven incorrect. Anyone care to put big money on it? Business as usual seems a lot more likely. After all those mere officials would be bound to get it wrong.

PS the captcha is well nigh indecipherable and that's a pain

Anonymous said...

I grew up near Kinloch. Always seemed an odd place to me. Roger Holyoake was an amateur magician and used to do shows at my primary school, and Paula Bennett IIRC was renowned for her generosity. I'm not at all surprised that it was founded on a bent land deal.

Nothing changes, except perhaps that the current lot do it in the open, because they know not enough of us care.

ak said...

Anyone besides Mai Chen surprised at the "significant and unusual" Supreme court decision "delivered in record time"?

Considering it was a crucial, "flagship" policy of a right-wing government admitting "no plan B, seriously", sadly, not many, if any.

James Norcliffe said...

An old journalist friend of mine used to quote with relish: You cannot hope to bribe or twist / thank Christ, the British journalist/but considering what the man will do unbribed/there's really no occasion to!
I rather feel that what was true of the British 4th estate, is true of a lot of politicians here, both national and local.

Mike said...

Let me guess which "international outfit" thinks NZ is the least corrupt country in the world - freedomhouse? I have e-mailed them a number of times trying to engage with them about why they think this in view of National's blatant disregard for democratic principles. What is their response? nothing! they don't want to know about it!

Anonymous said...

No hope socialist concept in this New Zealand land.Just invasive addictive government policies for the aid of capitals profit.

Grant Hay said...

Has anyone ever driven the rural roads of Pahiatua? I remember riding through Pahiatua on a motorbike on a wet day in 1980 and being amazed at the quality of those empty rural roads which tracked in perfectly straight lines with no pot holes or defects for mile after perfectly aligned mile. There was moss and lichen up the centre of the roads indicating that they were not like that due to usage and high demand. I'd heard rumours as a teenager about the perfect roads of the ex-PM's electorate but until then had never seen it for myself. Can anyone add something more substantial to my little speculative anecdote?

Anonymous said...

Grant Hay remarked on the excellent state of roads in Pahiatua.

Back in the day if a cocky wanted his road sealed he got himself elected to the County Council.

As if by magic his road was sealed

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, in a little town called Levin, in the very late 60's or early 70s, an electorate committee selection meeting was called by the National party for members to choose between Allan McCready ( then Postmaster General as I recall in Nat Gvt) and a much lesser known man from Shannon whose name is now lost to me -- sorry !

I knew I was going to support the man from Shannon ( yes, I know, forgive me being a young Nats member, but we all make mistakes !!)and I knew three other friends were also going to vote against McCready.

Three or four hours before the meeting, I received an anonymous phone call threatening dire results for my parents' very successful Levin business if I did not vote McCready. Indeed, several orders worth a several thousand dollars were suddenly cancelled with the business in the two following hours.

One of my friends received a similar threatening call, and their agricultural equipment business had several large tractor orders worth many thousands cancelled in the same late hours that very afternoon.

The purpose of the meeting was to elect the local electoral candidates who would attend and decide the selection process. Names were called for from the floor of the meeting to nominate for voting those who would make the final candidate selection between the long-standing McCready and the man challenging from Shannon.

As the names were called, a man recorded all of them in his notebook before transcribing them to the old fashioned blackboard with chalk. I could not fail to notice how the names appeared on the blackboard in an order quite other than they were received from the floor.

And just as this chalky illusion was appearing in front of me, the doctor's wife sitting next to me mistook me for a McCready supporter and whispered urgently and sharply that we were "supposed" to vote for the first five or six of names on the board to get the result "we" wanted.

It was a dirty and horribly corrupt process that saw McCready returned again to Parliament.

I left the meeting immediately after the vote, and resigned my young Nats membership explaining why. Everyone denied that any of these things I mentioned ever happened. I was treated as if deranged. Well, yes I must have been truly deranged for ever joining myself to such a crooked and corrupt party system.

First time writing of it in more than 40 years so thanks for the space. Mr Trotter, you are a constant bright illumination in the darkening spaces of Aotearoa. Your truths are fresh air and so welcome, thank you.

Chris Trotter said...

Thank you for the story, Anonymous.

It rings very true.

I, too, once attended a National Party selection meeting. (Not, I hasten to add, as a member, but because my father and mother were the friends of one of the candidates.)

It, too, had the whiff of predetermination.

If you wish me to know your details, just include them in a comment - which I will read and delete.

Anonymous said...

And let us not forget the day we became a bananan republic http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Darnton#Darnton_v_Clark