NZ's anti-corruption record slipping: watchdog
New Zealand is slipping down the ranks of the least corrupt countries, with watchdog Transparency International accusing the Government of "astonishing" complacency.
After topping the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for seven years in a row until 2013, the 2015 survey ranked New Zealand behind Denmark, Finland and Sweden. In 2014 New Zealand was ranked second, behind Denmark.
The survey draws scores from a range of other surveys to give an overall rating of the perceptions about corruption for 167 countries. In 2015 New Zealand scored 88, a marked fall from the 91 it scored in 2014.
New Zealand remains the least corrupt country in the Asia Pacific region, and continues to rate much better than trans-Tasman arch-rival Australia, which dropped two places to 13. Canada was ranked ninth, Britain 10th and the United States 16th.
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But Transparency International's New Zealand chair Suzanne Snively warned that if action was not taken to keep pace in areas such as access to information and environmental protection, further downgrades in the survey were likely.
The Office of the Ombudsman has launched an investigation into the way government departments treat Official Information Act requests, with frequent complaints by the media that the process is subject to political interference.
Prime Minister John Key has admitted publicly that the Government delays releasing requests as long as it can when it suits it to do so politically.
Snively said the attitude of the Government was astonishing, given that increased perceptions of corruption could hurt New Zealand's reputation as a trading nation.
"A clean reputation makes us attractive to do business with and secures qualified migrants and confident tourists," Snively said.
"The degree of complacency is New Zealand across the board in these things is astonishing, given that in a global economy and a socially networked world, integrity and authenticity are the two strongest things that contribute to a reputation."
While in areas such as rule of law New Zealand scored nine out of 10, in one index used by the CPI index for access to information, New Zealand scored a relatively poor 7.3 out of 10.
Snively said the ranking was disappointing given New Zealand's track record.
"We were one of the first countries to have an ombudsman, which showed that we really appreciated the importance of access to official information in New Zealand, and you look at us now. Other countries have taken our lead and passed us by," she said.
While it did not necessarily mean New Zealand was corrupt, making it difficult to access public information naturally created suspicion, Snively said.
"Whether the suspicion is justified is another question, but why are we do defensive? Why is there this adversarial defensiveness?"
Justice Minister Amy Adams admitted the slip in the index was "disappointing" but claimed New Zealand had taken steps to fight corruption.
"While the slight slip in rankings to fourth place is disappointing, the Government has strengthened our anti-corruption measures and enhanced transparency since the underlying surveys for this index were undertaken, which we would expect will have a positive impact next year."
But a public sector leader said the fall in the ranking was no surprise.
Glenn Barclay, national secretary for the Public Services Association, a union for public sector staff, said members had noticed "a growing lack of transparency" in government.
"Journalists and members of the public are reporting increasing manipulation of the Official Information Act, with delays and demands for payment becoming commonplace," Barclay said.
"The secrecy around the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, the murky process around the Auckland Convention Centre deal and Serco's handling of Mount Eden Prison have made things worse."
Labour leader Andrew Little said the survey was a widely-accepted barometer of trust in governments. The latest report was unlikely to have captured all of the fall-out from the Saudi sheep scandal, so Little said a further drop should be expected next year.
"New Zealand's highly-regarded international reputation for fair dealing has been eroded. It is shameful that the standards of transparency under John Key's leadership have slipped so far," Little said.