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Monday, 21 February 2011


Sadly, the ugly word 'corruption' is a word often used in New Zealand nowadays. We hear it from all sorts of people--professional, semi-professional, skilled, unskilled--in the street, in the supermarket, in conversations everywhere. People say, 'We live in a corrupt country', and of many decisions 'It's corruption', and others nod in deep agreement. We see corruption in government, in officialdom and in business. There is a global crisis caused by vast corruption, and we expect it elsewhere, but in New Zealand we have long prided ourselves on being largely free of it. But pride goes before a fall. At first our corruption was more covert than overt. Now it is arrogantly in our faces. And we the people are sick of it. We hate it, we do not want it, we are weary to the heart's core of what it does to our lives and our country.

Corruption is not interested in people or their well-being. It cares nothing for those whom Winston Churchill called 'the people who toil and moil.' It is not interested in acting with integrity in accordance with good, democratic laws. It is a vile cancer. Good government becomes impossible, and the true well-being of communities cannot be promoted.

But the protests against the repression of corrupt administration in Egypt and other Arab countries have a big advantage over any desire or attempt to do the same thing in New Zealand. In those countries there is a figurehead, a single one person who is the creator and symbol of the whole mess, someone who has been there for decades, whose name sums up everything wrong. To quote the sentiments of an Egyptian protester: 'The head of the snake had to be cut off.'

But in New Zealand the corruption is diffuse. It is not focused, it is not concentrated in one person, there is not one big snake with a single obvious head. It is an army of vipers large and small, writhing everywhere. The corruption is spread across many MPS, judges, tribunals, police officers, bureaucrats, mayors, councillors, businessmen, editors, journalists...

The type of corruption is also more diffuse. In Arab regimes it is or can be seen under one heading. But in New Zealand it takes many forms.

Corruption can be extreme wickedness--a Hitler or a Robert Mugabe. But just as bad are multitudes of smaller kinds. It does not matter if your house is wrecked by a charging rhinoceros or a million termites, the result is the same. Your life is wrecked. The blatant rhino is at least easy to see and can be stopped with a single bullet. But a million termites are hard to see, hard to stop, and may not be noticed for a long time. They gnaw away in the foundations of society, then suddenly we all crash through the floor.

There are two kinds of corruption. Deliberate and 'accidental.' But it is all the same. It is a form of vanity. It can be the love of titles, seats of honour, official baubles--the corruption of greedy pomposity. It can be a taste for personal power--the corruption of overweening self-importance. It can be acting for a friend or someone with a title instead of obeying democratic law--the corruption of influence. It can be making a decision for bureaucratic convenience, not true public service--the corruption of process over humanity. It can be not bothering to do your job properly--the corruption of irresponsible carelessness. It can be not bothering to do the job at all--the corruption of laziness and pretence, of sloth and show. It can be the corruption of not being up to the job--the corruption of incompetence, and bad management. It can be not bothering with the law or researching the facts--the corruption of wilful lawlessness and ignorance. It can refusing to admit a mistake in the face of the facts and the law--the corruption of wilful blindness. It can be not understanding simple English--the corruption of ignorant stupidity. It can be forcing people to comply with your dictates to satisfy pride, bureaucratic arrogance, or sloth--the corruption of petty oppression. It can be refusing to give a straight answer to a valid question--the corruption of the silent lie. It can be presenting false or misleading information and pretending it is true, or falsifying the law and the meaning of words--the corruption of outright lies, of deliberate evil. It can be offering a position for a vote or a wad of money or a gift--the corruption of bribery. It can be acting out of hatred, malice or the desire for revenge--the corruption of wanting to do harm. It can be acting on shonky official advice--the corruption of careless and uninformed decisions. It can be political interference in due process, such as misusing a statutory authority--the corruption of abusing political position. It can be conducting a hearing with a closed mind, with the verdict politically dictated in advance--the corruption of prejudice or cowardice. In judges it can be the corruption of not applying reason and the rules of logic to the evidence, in spite of the fact that the law commands it; or ignoring evidence, or the law, or both--the corruption putting themselves above the law, of thinking that they are the law. It can be the corruption wilfully misrepresenting the law because it does not fit the personal opinions or ideology of the judge or the official. It can be the corruption of bad senior officials repressing good juniors and thus preventing them from being conscientious public servants. It can be putting friendship, personal advantage and enrichment, or ideology above the truth and the rule of good law--even the creation of good law. It can be unfairness--the corruption of denying natural justice, to which we all have the right under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, which came into law in 1990. It can be swearing to carry out your duties according to law, having never read the relevant law and never bothering to read it afterwards--the corruption of official perjury. And so on.

Vanity is of course dishonesty writ large. It is a damned lie. But people, especially New Zealanders, are hardly likely to occupy public squares and march on Parliament under that banner. It is easy to march along shouting'Get rid of Mubarak!' or just 'Resign!' But 'Get rid of dishonest administrators!' does not have the same compulsive power. It rouses no one.

It is easy to shout at one man; it is next to impossible to shout at thousands.

Many years ago Gordon McLaughlan wrote a book about New Zealanders titled 'The Passionless People.' We are not ones to rouse ourselves to get rid of damned liars, however many there are. We are more likely to shrug and say 'That's life', do nothing and hope that the next election will fix things. Thus at every election we vote for the people who we hope will do the least harm. And the harm gets worse.

Perhaps the electronic street will enable us to shout in a way we feel comfortable with...

A democracy is meant to be people-power. But what we have is personage-power, and too many personages are corrupt. The people must wrest power away from them. They have power only because we allow it. As the Egyptians proved, when we say 'NO MORE!' the personages have to quit.