Tuesday, July 17th, 2018 - Shift Focus

Rex Widerstrom

Speech to the Whistleblowers’ Unity Forum

Parliament Square, London SW1P 3JX

17 July 2018

 

I stand before you as a citizen of the least corrupt country in the world – New Zealand. Yet again, we topped Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index last year. We live in a golden land, free of any taint of wrongdoing, basking in headlines like the World Economics Forum’s pronouncement that “New Zealand is the least corrupt country”.

The UK is a shameful eighth equal, along with The Netherlands, Luxembourg and Canada.

So no problems where I come from. Except that is – and you’ll have to excuse the language from someone who’s been the victim of several flavours of corruption in New Zealand – absolute bullshit.

To shatter the illusion our number one ranking might have created, I need take you back only to last year, when Joanne Harrison was sent to jail for defrauding our Ministry of Transport of roughly £400,000.

This wasn’t some sophisticated “Oceans 11” caper. Let me quote to you from a media report:

“She was a brassy and clumsy fraudster who got spotted really early – three years before any action was taken at the top. The invoices were fakes. Amateur, rough fakes. Illegal travel to nonexistent conferences. Government jobs engineered for her husband and an acquaintance. It was a criminal romp.”

What happened to the whistleblowers who spotted her? They were all made redundant. That’s despite New Zealand having the Protected Disclosures Act 2000, which, as the name suggests, protects such disclosures.

You can still get bullied at work by the person you’re trying to expose, as those whistleblowers also were. You can still get overlooked for promotion. You can even be fired.

But then you’re allowed to bring an action in the Employment Court, citing your whistleblowing as a reason for your appalling treatment and eventual dismissal. So that’s alright then.

Let’s look at what Harrison’s superior did with the information. Martin Matthews, who was then the Transport Ministry boss, was told repeatedly by his own senior legal and financial people, over a three year period, that Harrison was failing to comply with public service rules for contracts and invoices. And yet the invoices were paid. Why? Again, we turn to subsequent media reports: “Mr Matthews appears to have personally shut down internal investigations into Harrison – amazingly, at Harrison’s request”.

Poor Martin Matthews, he must have been a bit out of his depth dealing with such a situation, yes?

Except Matthews was assistant auditor general for eight years from 1990. One of his core responsibilities was fraud prevention.

Perhaps we can charitably ascribe his poor performance to somewhat inadequate role-modelling. Because his boss for much of that time was Jeff Chapman, who holds the dubious distinction of being New Zealand’s highest-ranking civil servant to be convicted and jailed for fraud.

That’s right, New Zealand – the “least corrupt country in the world” – has a former Auditor General in jail for fraud. And what became of the hapless, hopeless, Martin Matthews, who rubber stamped close to a million dollars in obviously fake invoices and shut down investigations? He is now the new Auditor General.

This is starting to sound like an attack on Transparency International, who do the best with the information they’re given.

But we need to look closer. Australia’s Deakin University examined public and private sector entities in both countries on the strength of organisational processes for responding to staff concerns about wrongdoing.

Out of a possible score of 10, New Zealand rated just 5.65. Ahead of them were the Australian Federal government (first at 6.95), Australian state and territory governments, Australian local government, and the Australian finance and insurance industry! An industry so corrupt that there is currently a Banking Royal Commission, exposing practices such as alleged bribery, forged documents, repeated failure to verify customers’ living expenses before lending them money, mis-selling insurance to people who can’t afford it, lying to regulators, and charging fees to clients who are dead.

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Many years ago, when I was a party spokesperson and widely tipped to become a Minister, two of us promoted a Bill to replicate the UK’s Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. We couldn’t even get the support of our own party, which had supposedly been created to end the cosy, corrupt duopoly of National – basically the Conservatives – and Labour. This was at a time when the Commissioner here was Elizabeth Filkin, and her subsequent controversial departure – after the Mandelson case and others – taught us that even had we succeeded, we were probably doomed to fail.

I note in passing the current commissioner investigates just one in ten complaints about MPs – something you, as the people who pay her wages, might want to ask for an accounting of. But hey, at least you have a commissioner.

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Eventually I resigned when my party leader, who’d quit the National Party and successfully initiated an inquiry into big business in order to portray himself as an honest maverick, hired a disgraced MP who’d had to resign for misleading the House – and the rarity of that occurrence should tell you all you need to know about how bad a lie that was. Not only did he hire him and put him in charge of all strategy, he lied about not having hired him and ordered us to do the same. And the strategy changed from “always tell the truth” to “lie to get just enough votes to hold the balance of power but no responsibility”.

Surely fate has handed him his just desserts, you ask? Well some might say so – he’s now acting Prime Minister while the incumbent is off having a baby.

Incidentally, he went on record last night – Monday morning, New Zealand time – siding with Putin and seeming to ignore the advice of New Zealand’s security services about Russian election meddling. Incidentally, he’s also our Foreign Minister. So no worries about the integrity of our elections, either.

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So what protects whistleblowers in Aotearoa? Legally speaking, ‘every public sector organisation’ is required to have ‘appropriate internal procedures for receiving and dealing with information about serious wrongdoing’, but there is no statutory requirement for these procedures to include whistleblower support and protection.

And while the Ombudsman may request information from public agencies about their procedures and how they operate, they’re given no power or obligation to set or enforce standards for these procedures.

To its credit, the current government is reviewing the law to see if it offers enough protection. I know several people who could have saved them the cost with a two-word submission: Hell, no.

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In common with the UK, political staffers turn lobbyists and lobbyists become political staffers with astonishing regularity. While it’s not uncommon for a defeated government’s key advisors to find refuge in lobbying jobs, our current Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff worked six months helping an MP who’d never held Ministerial office and had served only a few months as Leader of the Opposition before setting up his own lobbying firm. I’m sure he won’t wield undue influence on her, on behalf of paying clients.

And also in common with this country, paid political staffers are stifling the tradition of “free and frank” advice from neutral and experienced bureaucrats. Political and public administration academics Chris Eichbaum and Richard Shaw researched the freeness and frankness of New Zealand’s public servants in 2005 and 2017. They found officials became more guarded in and around an increasingly politicised Cabinet. They say:

“The problem is that – and we can say this with some confidence – Ministerial staff interject themselves into administrative processes to filter out advice that a Minister may need to hear but that she or he (or their dutiful adviser) deems unhelpful, or potentially embarrassing if – heaven forbid – it should ever make its way onto the front page....”

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So what of the private sector? As one might expect, they’re far from blameless. Deloitte's latest bribery and corruption survey has found that about 20 percent of New Zealand companies surveyed had detected some form of corruption.

Their commentary: “The perceptions differ from the reality. Corruption is real in New Zealand, it’s happening and that's evidenced by the cases coming before the courts.”

While two thirds of companies feared their reputation would be shredded by corruption, many have done no risk assessment about their vulnerability, and more than half had no plan to take steps to bring in anti-corruption measures in the next five years.

The most common form of corruption was undeclared conflicts of interest, followed by gifts and trips, along with doing favours, and giving excessive commissions. And the most common form of detection was tip-offs or whistle blowing.

And I haven’t time to touch on police corruption. That’s what brought me here, when as a reporter on a small local paper I uncovered the manipulation of offence rates, setting off 30 years of attempts to silence me through an increasingly bizarre series of escalating charges, none of which were ever proven.

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So why have you been forced to listen to these tales from a Colonial outpost? What possible relevance can it all have to the stories you’ve heard and are soon to hear from other speakers?

Both countries are fortunate to have some truly excellent and courageous journalists – though in New Zealand lax media ownership laws have allowed oligarchies to flourish and newsroom numbers to be gutted, far more so than here.

Both countries have some principled and courageous public servants – and Dr David Kelly was one of them – but they’re at risk if they disclose and actively hampered by inept or corrupt senior people. Both countries have a “revolving door” of senior political advisors and politicians acting as lobbyists.

So if we are number one and all that I’ve told you – and more – is happening in New Zealand, then what is really happening, here in number eight?

I can’t answer that. I don’t know. But I know how we’ll know: you’ll tell us.

This is not a time to think democracy is a spectator sport. We need you on the field. We need you in the fight. We need your voice, which is ultimately your power. We need you to speak out and speak up, to support those who speak up, and to put aside whatever differences you may have to face the many threats to freedom with unity and strength.

This is the country in which the Magna Carta was signed, long before the Declaration of Independence or the Declaration of the Rights of Man or the UN Declaration of Human Rights. You forged the very IDEA of democracy right here in Britain, and sent it out across the world.

Now democracy needs you again, to keep it’s flame burning and to raise your voices when it is threatened. For, to quote the Lithuanian poet and author Czes?aw Mi?osz:

“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.”

Be the weapon that fires that shot.

 

ends

Rex Widerstrom  is a former senior adviser to NZ First Leader (now Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister) Rt Hon Winston Peters MP; advisor to the NZ National Party, NZ Labour Party, ACT NZ Party, WA Liberal Party and candidates in NZ, Australia and the United States. He is Principal Consultant at the government relations and political consulting firm, Shift Focus. Previously he was a senior journalist, editor and talk broadcaster. He was WA State Director of Civil Liberties Australia from 2010 to 2016.

Contact in the UK: +44 771 956 4617

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Rex Widerstrom
M: +447719564617
W: www.shiftfocus.com.au

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Former advisor to NZ's Deputy PM urges whistleblowers to speak out

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