Stacey Kirk: Rising corruption investigations are a symptom of growing mistrust

Last updated 11:44 06/11/2016

Foreign Minister Murray McCully welcomed Auditor-General Lyn Provost's "exoneration" of him. She indeed cleared him of corruption, but he did not escape criticism.

Awassi ewes at the farm of Saudi businessman Hmood Al Khalaf.
Saudi Arabian businessman Hamoud Ali Al-Khalaf, left.

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OPINION: This government has never been found to be corrupt. But can it say it carries the perception it is trustworthy?

Perhaps one of the most significant swipes to come out of the Saudi sheep deal from outgoing Auditor General Lyn Provost is that all signs point to no. 

Foreign Minister Murray McCully has been cleared of corruption in his dealings with Saudi Arabian sheep farmer Hmood Al Khalaf. 

But he does not come out of the debacle as the bastion of trust and integrity which his affronted claims that he was exonerated would suggest. 

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Those dealings saw the latter personally pocket $4 million New Zealand taxpayer funds and a $6m farm set up in the desert, to ease diplomatic tension and clear a path toward free trade with Arab state. 

Provost also raised serious concerns over the quality of work McCully had officials perform in bringing a business case for the deal to Cabinet, citing an apparent $24m legal threat. 

That Cabinet paper did not explain Al Khalaf Group would own the farm New Zealand was stumping up for, nor did it explain how the overall $10m figure was chosen. 

Glaringly absent was any evidence that ministers or officials requested or received any legal advice on the level of the threat being pushed by Al Khalaf.

It points to shoddy workmanship sure, but Provost is right - there was no personal gain either sought or happened upon, and so no corruption, according to its legal definition.

So call it a warning, rather than political commentary, but she made no bones about the fact such allegations were on the rise.

"Accusations of corruption and bribery should be of concern to us all. 

"During my time as Auditor General, I have seen an increase in these accusations." 

None of Provost's inquiries have upheld any of those accusations. Yet, they keep occurring. 

Is it because many aren't well versed in what the legal definition of corruption actually requires? 

Is it because in this era of trumped up political outrage, the common Opposition response to unsavoury deals is to allege the worst and call for an inquiry? 

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Perhaps elements of the two, but the obvious answer is usually the correct one. 

Regardless of its intentions in carrying out these transactions, the Saudi sheep saga would never have been known about if the Government had had its way. 

Wrapped up in its own "creativity", ministers adopted the position that they know best, and the opinions of others, and even the public, would only delay progress. 

It's an approach also seen applied to the Official Information Act, where 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.

The SkyCity Convention Centre deal drew no praise for being entirely above board and the Trans Pacific Partnership - where there were arguably solid reasons for the secrecy - did not help the Government's reputation in this are either. 

In Provost's own words: "Transparency is the best foil for corruption". 

Perhaps that goes for the perception of it as well. 

- Sunday Star Times


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