Opinion entitled to hearing?

Opinion entitled to hearing?

Troubled by recent stories of embezzlement in both government and university communities around the country, Loulou Callister-Baker addresses issues of corruption within New Zealand – ultimately advocating for the maintenance
of transparency and for a turn away from complacency in the voting public.

“Corrupt” is a word that resonates; it is a word that condemns. Sometimes “corrupt” is used flippantly – tossed into political debate in a moment of red-cheeked irrationality or slipped into news headlines to overly simplify the crumbling of an authority figure or entire political body. Corrupt is not a word heard often in New Zealand. We are a nation filled with privileges and this creates a general feeling of ease; the more cynically inclined might even label this feeling as “complacency.” But, while cases of extreme corruption in New Zealand are rare, this does not mean they are impossible. The rarity, along with New Zealand’s reputation, should encourage us all to maintain awareness of corruption, reinforce sanctions that lower its likelihood, and – as the public or the media – report on it when it occurs.

But first, as always, there is an issue of definition. Whether a state or authority is corrupt or not is difficult to determine. In 2013, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ranked New Zealand and Denmark as the least corrupt countries in the world. Somalia, North Korea and Afghanistan all came in last place. Experts allocated scores based on perceived levels of corruption within the public sector of a country – defining corruption as the misuse of entrusted power for private gain. Reflecting New Zealand’s high ranking in both this index and others, Transparency International New Zealand’s website comments: “New Zealand’s public sector is consistently ranked among the least corrupt in the world. This reputation is not a coincidence. New Zealand has a long tradition of being first with legislation aimed at promoting human rights. Milestones include the Public Service Act 1912 and the Official Information Act 1982.”

However, what both this organisation and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Victoria University, Robert Gregory, stress is the importance of not becoming too self-congratulatory about New Zealand’s ranking. “In key areas, passivity and complacency continue,” the 2013 NZ National Integrity System Assessment Executive Summary states. “New Zealand has not ratified the UN Convention against Corruption more than 10 years after signing it, and is not fully compliant with the legal requirements of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention more than 14 years after signing it.” As Professor Gregory also comments in his paper on good governance and corruption in New Zealand: “... it is worth noting that in New Zealand since the introduction of the State Sector Act 1988 there has been no central record kept of criminal offences committed by state servants. Nor is there in New Zealand any common law covering misconduct in public office, as there is in Britain and Hong Kong, for example.”

Complacency and ignorance are not the only issues with these ranking systems. Corruption and good governance don’t easily translate into numbers – and if they do, it’s a complicated translation with very subjective formulas at play.

“Probably the most common criticism of the WGI (and other indexes) is that the vast complexities of good governance cannot be reduced to any meaningfully precise single index number,” Professor Gregory writes. “While a single composite number is seductive, and enables quick comparisons to be made among countries, the problem is that for comparative purposes these numbers are virtually meaningless, since they are based on sources and information which vary greatly between countries, and even within countries, over time.”

As a citizen, the public sector’s role in my life is integral; but as a citizen who is also a student, there is a further quasi-political body whose actions or inactions can have a large impact on my experience. When ACT’s Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill passed its third reading in 2011 it flipped-off student-body associations throughout the nation. ACT’s Heather Roy commented that students were “free at last,” describing the Bill as “Parliament’s gift to students.” But, despite the blow, student-body associations around New Zealand continued on. This September, with the general elections looming, it’s not unspeakable that some passionate members of student bodies hope for the promise of change – of bettering the past’s wrongs. And, for the most part, they deserve change and more support. It’s not okay, for example, that Massey University’s magazine MASSIVE was forced out of print despite the University’s 34,000 students and journalism school. Of course, student-body associations do have their flaws and their conduct needs to be as transparent as possible. Cracks will form, and we need them to be visible when they do.

A sprinkling of news reports at the end of 2013 and in the beginning of 2014 suggest that in student body associations, where political careers can begin for many, temptation – or a simple lack of understanding – has resulted in questionable behaviour.

Late in 2013, certain OUSA Executive members sent the Association into a frenzy when they breached section 7.6 of the OUSA Constitution. The breach occurred when members voted contrary to a motion that stated that delegates attending the NZUSA Conference had to vote for 2013 OUSA President Francisco Hernandez in the NZUSA presidential elections. This was one of the first times in recent history – if not the first time ever – that OUSA’s Constitution had been broken like this. The breach occurred due to a lack of experience and training on behalf of the offending Executive members. On the matter, Hernandez told Critic: “I’ve learned a lesson in politics from this: don’t trust anyone. They’ll either fuck up or they’ll be disloyal, and either is as damaging.” However, to OUSA’s credit, appropriate sanctions for the offending members have been made, which included pay reductions and limitations on roles. Furthermore, at some point this year a Student General Meeting will be held to notify the student body of this breach of the OUSA Constitution. Don’t forget your popcorn.

Another crack appeared in a University of Otago student association when it was revealed in the Vice-Chancellor Discipline Report 2013 that fourth year law student Charlotte Solomon, who at the time was President of the Maori Law Students’ Association, fraudulently obtained money from the Association by making false invoices. A total of $1,736.59 was stolen. The offending student was excluded from further enrolment with immediate effect, for an indefinite period, and sentenced to nine months’ supervision, with an order to pay court costs of $260 and the outstanding reparation.

In the windier lands of the capital, 2013 Massey Extramural Students’ Society (EXMSS) President, Jeanette Chapman, has continued to make news headlines into 2014. In August last year, Massey’s student magazine MASSIVE published an article revealing Chapman was receiving a salary of $53,000. This salary included $30,000 of extra funds that were approved by Chapman’s executive team, who are believed to be made up of the past President’s friends. Although Chapman claimed that $30,000 of this salary came from her role as Massey University’s Student Association Federation Coordinator, she was recorded in a MUSA Executive meeting denying receiving this funding. Recent events in January this year have only added to the surmounting issues, with a suspicious request for, as Lucy Townend reported for Stuff: “Massey University Extramural Students’ Society’s $200,000 nest egg to be moved into a mysterious trust has been filed, with no-one able to say what the money will be used for.” The trust was reportedly set up by Chapman in October last year, but has not been granted charitable status.

It’s not just the student associations that are getting caught up in questionable affairs; university staffs throughout the country have been in on the action as well. In 2010, practicing dentist and former head of oral rehabilitation at Otago’s School of Dentistry, Dr Alan Graham Thomas Payne, pleaded guilty to two counts of using false documents to obtain pecuniary advantage and one of obtaining money by deception. His method? An elaborate act where the doctor pretended to provide patients with two sets of false teeth instead of one. In the time between 2002 and 2011, Jonathan Kirkpatrick – the former head of Auckland University of Technology’s business innovation centre – fraudulently collected over half a million dollars from the University. Kirkpatrick’s technique was simple: false invoices in the names of Halsey Consulting, Business Custom Solutions and Eventure. Vice-Chancellor Derek McCormack told students at the time: “The discrepancies relate to money in the research and development field, and is not derived from student fees. Nevertheless, AUT is largely a student and taxpayer-funded organisation and remains accountable to the highest accounting standards.’’ Later, in 2012, a remarkably similar case appeared when a University of Otago accounts manager, Graeme Jeffrey Pettitt, admitted to stealing approximately $240,000 from the University. Over the course of seven years Pettitt made a staggering 72 fraudulent payments into a bank account he established for a fake creditor known as Hadaad Syndicate.

These stories resonate with their own kinds of tragedies. Sure, the offending figures were greedy and morally trite, but underlining each example is a type of desperation that makes me cringe and causes my trust in any political system to waver dangerously. These offenders are people who were once seen as leaders in the academic institutions they taught or learnt in and, simply stated, they should have known better. The negative social and economic repercussions are vast – as Transparency International state: “Frustration and general apathy among a disillusioned public result in a weak civil society.” Furthermore, if one can profit from fraudulent means, there will always be someone missing out, which not only leads to the depletion of wealth within the victim institution, it also attacks fair market structures and competition.

These stories remind me of a letter from Jawaharlal Nehru to his 10-year-old daughter, Indira Gandhi (who would later become India’s first and only female Prime Minister): “Everything in [the early] days belonged to the whole tribe and not to each member separately. Even the patriarch had nothing special to himself. As a member of the tribe, he could only have a share like any other member. But he was the organiser and he was supposed to look after the goods and property of the tribe. As his power increased, he began to think that these goods and property were really his own and not the tribe’s. Or rather he thought that he himself, being the leader of the tribe, represented the tribe. So we see how the idea of owning things for oneself began.” In New Zealand’s system of democracy, the people give power to the governing bodies and, ideally, this power should be used to benefit the whole of society, not the individual who holds it. If this is not done, the moral authority of democracy falters and institutions lose their legitimacy, sometimes irreconcilably so, depending on the sanctions in place.

Further stories of embezzlement, both in student-body associations and university institutions, exist but are unable to be pursued, as they are protected by legal, professional privilege or a general feeling that “it wouldn’t do” to call attention to one’s own failings. “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question,” George Orwell wrote in his essay about the media’s self-censorship titled The Freedom of the Press. “It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”

Issues of corruption are meaningless to the wider community if they aren’t reported on and exposed. The essence of democracy requires transparency – every time – because if we, the voting public, aren’t informed, our choices are simply unintentionally uneducated and arbitrary. As New Zealand activist, barrister and co-founder of Transparency International, Jeremy Pope, once stated: “‘Transparency’ is a term so frequently used and used in such diverse contexts that it is worth re-stating why it matters so much. Citizens have a right to information – a principle well established in such codes as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and New Zealand’s Official Information Act 1982. Transparency is also a precondition for effective public debate, strengthens accountability, and promotes fairer and more effective and efficient governance.” Transparency is not just about knowledge of the basic facts, but also the mechanisms and processes behind decisions, government bodies and student associations – requiring predictability and coherency at all times.

Transparency International, an organisation aimed at lowering corruption through increased exposure of it, revealed last year that 65 per cent of people they surveyed thought corruption had increased in New Zealand over the past two years. The reasons for this are varied. Some believe various activities surrounding the Christchurch earthquakes have been questionable and have come to the public’s attention with a sense of unease. Others point to the increasing use of social media to spread news or inflate hype. Whatever the case, it comes down to each of us maintaining an active awareness and acceptance of how grey this area is – even in a number one-ranking country like New Zealand. This is a battle against complacency. As Professor Gregory concludes in his paper: “All public institutions – including the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies – and all components of civil society have to be committed to fostering, developing and sustaining an intelligent and balanced relationship between social science and social criticism. In the quest for good governance the real challenge is to ensure that while we have ever burgeoning stores of data and information, we also have more knowledge of what this data and information actually means, and – above all else – more wisdom in applying it.” As students, part of an institution primarily focused on education, with the ability to vote in a myriad of both political and quasi-political elections, the battle starts here.
This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2014.
Posted 2:59pm Sunday 16th March 2014 by Loulou Callister-Baker.