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Complacency on corruption all too obvious

There’s a Kiwi tradition that reliably rolls around every January.

This is when Transparency International [TI] issues its annual rankings of countries’ relative corruption.

New Zealand typically ranks as one of the world’s “least corrupt” nations. Indeed, our position at the top of the table is so consistent that the local chapter of TI didn’t even need to change the press release headline heralding our 2021 and 2022 placements: “New Zealand again tops the Corruption Perceptions Index” sufficed on both occasions.

Although this year’s release didn’t involve an exact iteration of our obvious moral superiority, “New Zealand second equal in latest Corruption Perceptions Index” was more than adequate to activate our annual observance of just how honest we are, mates.

After all, “this is only the third time since 2006 where New Zealand has not ranked first or first equal in the annual index,” TI NZ’s release was quick to reassure us.

And it wasn’t like we got worse, it’s that Demark got better, improving its score by two points to put it ahead of us and Finland [we typically jockey for position with these Nordic countries each year].

All good, then; we’re still good – very good, in fact, especially compared to everyone else.

So, nothing to see here – we can all smugly move along.

But before we do, it would behove us to notice the measure we tend to take such overweening collective pride in is a Corruption Perceptions Index. In other words, we’re not being ranked on objective reality – just how we appear. More particularly, how we appear to “13 external sources, including the World Bank, World Economic Forum, private risk and consulting companies, think tanks and others” when it comes to “public sector corruption”.

So [very] basically, the rankings are really about how much overt corruption various countries appear to have, based on the observations of outsiders; whether the price of doing business predictably involves, for example, having to grease the palms of officials in order to get that license or this contract.

What inevitably isn’t measured is how much corrupt practice is actually going on beneath the surface.

Arguably, Kiwis could actually be as corrupt as everyone else – just better at not getting caught.

In which case, the two former public servants found guilty on Friday of corruption related to the Christchurch rebuild wouldn’t be the exception that proves the rule, just a couple of amateur grifters whose incompetence in the corruption game gives us a brief glimpse of our rarely acknowledged underbelly.

Ditto the six individuals who were last week charged in Auckland with corrupt jiggery-pokery around road maintenance contracts.

The fact we’re such a small country is often offered as an argument [as well as an explanation] for there being little to no corruption here – after all, if there was, surely everyone would be aware of it.

But our tiny size is also why we shrug away conflicts of interest as both inevitable and of limited concern, ignoring that corruption doesn’t require clandestine exchanges of paper bags stuffed with cash – sometimes all it takes is a dinner party conversation, say, or a phone call between mates.

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