Editorial: Bribes are a sickness that threatens the democratic system

Murray Noone, left, and Stephen Borlase appear in the Auckland High Court for sentencing on fraud charges
David White

Murray Noone, left, and Stephen Borlase appear in the Auckland High Court for sentencing on fraud charges

Bribes are not just a personal fraud and a crime against honour. They are an attack on democracy itself. The unbribable bureaucrat is a cornerstone of of our system, because if money prevails then fairness and  freedom are gone.

So the stiff sentences handed down in the Auckland bribery case are not only fitting, they are vital. Justice Sally Fitzgerald sentenced former Auckland Transport senior manager Murray Noone to five years and businessman Stephen Borlase to five years and six months, noting that their offending had "a very real reputational impact" on Auckland Transport.

In fact their crime damages the reputation of New Zealand as a whole. We are consistently at or near the top of Transparency International's corruption index, and we certainly like to think  of ourselves as corruption-free. In fact, we're not, as this case shows.

How far corruption extends is impossible to know, but it is disturbing that six other Auckland Transport staff reportedly  left "under a cloud" after an internal investigation started in 2013. Auckland Transport says there were "trust and confidence issues" including non-compliance with gift and inducement policies.

One of the striking aspects of this case is that, as the judge noted, Borlase refused to accept he had done anything wrong  and Noone showed only a "limited" appreciation of his actions. Corruption is often like that: it grows unnoticed, like a cancer, and the shift from arguably harmless gift-giving to full-scale bribery is subtle and insidious.

This means that the culture of corruption has to be destroyed before it even begins to take hold.The tough sentences in this case will help to do this, but Auckland Transport will also have to reform itself. Rules about disclosure of gift-giving and the like are useless unless they are mercilessly enforced by the officials themselves.

Auckland Transport must now prove to the world that the corruption in its ranks has been rooted out. The wider problem of our international reputation will be harder to fix. There have been other cases of corruption in New Zealand, though they are sporadic. Some, however, have been spectacular and came from the highest reaches of officialdom.

Perhaps the most serious case was that of Jeff Chapman, a former Auditor-General and ACC boss, convicted in 1997 on 10 charges of fraud. Otago District Health Board officer Michael Swann was convicted in 2009 or defrauding the DHB of more than $16m and was sentenced to nine years' jail.

These might be regarded as spectacular exceptions to a rule of  honesty. But in 2010 a survey by Transparency International  found that 3.6 per cent of New Zealanders said that either they or someone in their household had paid a bribe in the past 12 months.

The survey, of 1291 New Zealanders, was certainly an astonishing challenge to our usual sense of ourselves. Phil O'Reilly, the then chief executive of Business New Zealand, said if nearly four out of every 100 people had paid a bribe in the last year "we would know about it."

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Would we?

 

 - Stuff

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