Transparency International has once again ranked New Zealand at number one in the world for its lack of corruption. Its corruption perception rating is 9.3 out of 10 (down slightly from 9.4 in 2009), suggesting that the public sector and politics is free of the type of financial dishonesty, bribery, fraud and sleaze that is more commonly found in other western liberal democracies such as Italy, Spain and France. Certainly New Zealand politics has not traditionally been characterised by political corruption scandals. Yet over the last decade there have been a quickly growing number of high profile controversies relating to political money – especially in terms of politician behaviour and electioneering. Thus, an apparent paradox exists whereby New Zealand has experienced an explosion of political finance scandals over recent years, yet the Transparency International (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) suggests New Zealand is relatively immune from corruption. What is the truth? Do the scandals that have recently dominated domestic politics fall outside the definition of political corruption? Is there more sound and fury than substance in these scandals? Or is the TI CPI missing out on the measurement of the increasing appearance of corruption? I’m currently doing some research on these issues, and this blog post is a chance to briefly raise some of the issues involved. [Read more below]
As Bob Gregory has argued, the NZ TI score does not mean that New Zealand is as corruption-free as is often assumed or portrayed: ‘The situation is roughly analogous to the country's "clean and green" environmental image, which has been well-publicised internationally. Yet there is abundant evidence that the reputation, if not over-stated, is at least under significant threat’.
Much of the emerging doubt about New Zealand’s level of corruption has been in relationship to political finance. In particular, recently there has been widespread concern as to the fairness of political competition in New Zealand and the party system’s relationship to the uneven distribution of wealth in society. Unfortunately, little academic study has been undertaken on political finance in New Zealand, and therefore much of this crucial debate takes place without much real understanding of how New Zealand political parties obtain and use their financial resources.
Perception of corruption in New Zealand
My research details some indicators that might help us understand the level of perceived corruption in New Zealand. The indicators range from the direct TI CPI, to media content analysis, to more indirect measures that are sometimes used as proxies for detecting public concern about the honesty and integrity of the ‘political class’.
Transparency International, the leading anti-corruption NGO, publishes an annual index of ratings of perceived levels of corruption in both the public and private sector for 180 countries. The CPI measures ‘the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians’ (Internet Center for Corruption Research, 2005) by surveying ‘experts and businesspeople’ operating in each country. Countries are given scores of between 0 to 10, with a higher score meaning less perceived corruption.
When the index was first published in 1995, New Zealand was ranked first. Since then its position has fluctuated slightly, but has always remained within the top four positions. The most recent survey puts New Zealand in first place again. New Zealand normally gets a score of about 9.5 out of 10. (New Zealand’s past rankings are: 2009, 1; 2008, 1; 2007, 1; 2006, 1; 2005, 2, 2004, 2; 2003, 3; 2002, 3; 2001, 3; 2000, 3; 1999, 3; 1998, 4; 1997, 4; 1996, 1; 1995, 1).
Every year when the survey results are published in New Zealand, the media reports include not only a fair amount of self-congratulations, but also various amounts of incredulity expressed that New Zealand could possibly rank so highly. While New Zealanders like to think that the country has little corruption, there is some disbelief that there has not been an erosion in the standing of the country. Thus various political improprieties and scandals are mentioned in the media and other public discussion (e.g. the blogosphere) as evidence that New Zealand should not deserve the prize of number one position on the TI list.
The media in New Zealand
The media in New Zealand is widely seen as being relatively weak, especially due its extremely concentrated ownership and deregulated market. Its examination of politics is often viewed as superficial. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – this weakness, in recent years, the media has proved able to uncover political finance and political corruption issues help make them into major issues for the public. The media is clearly taking a much harder line on political integrity.
This is reflected in the fact that there has been an increased number of stories published covering or mentioning corruption. The chart below shows the increased number of stories published in New Zealand using the word ‘corrupt’ or ‘corruption’. Chart 1 is based on the ‘Knowledge Basket’ database of New Zealand newspapers, magazines, journal articles and press releases, and shows the increasing number of such articles that mention the word ‘corrupt’ and/or ‘corruption’ since 1990. While this measure has some problematic aspects – especially because it includes international news stories about corruption that are published in New Zealand – it does nonetheless show the dramatic increase in the salience of the term ‘corruption’ in the New Zealand media, which perhaps reflects (or has initiated) increasing public concern about corruption. (Note: the corruption figure for 2010 is an extrapolated figure based on the first half of the year.) As discussed later in this paper, there are certain political events that can be seen to correlate with the increases observable on this chart.
Chart 1: Media Database articles mentioning ‘corrupt’ or ‘corruption’ (1990-2010)
Source: Information gathered from http://www.knowledge-basket.co.nz
And in the next chart I’ve tried to add in some correlating political finance scandals that might relate to the increased salience of the term corruption in New Zealand.
Chart 2: Media Database articles mentioning ‘corrupt’ or ‘corruption’, with annotated explanations (1990-2010)
So, why so little perceived corruption?
So, if we’re having all these political finance scandals – and if we’re using the word corruption much more – why isn’t New Zealand doing worse on the TI corruption index? I’m looking at a number of explanations for this. But the one that comes to mind the most is explained by Wilson:
Perhaps more importantly, the CPI survey data relies on the perceptions of the business and political communities to assess corruption. Such perceptions will tend to be informed by the world views of business and development interests that may differ markedly from those held by the general public. In any event, all corruption surveys rely on subjective perceptions rather than on real phenomena, making it difficult to assess what the ‘real’ level of corruption may be in any one country (Wilson, 2004: p.7)
I’ll blog more about this in the near future. But as usual, I'm very happy to receive any feedback or ideas about these issues.