Corruption exists by the shovel load

A group of wealthy ranchers and industrialists importunes the man most likely to lead their party to the White House.

He hears them out politely, takes a contemplative sip from his glass of whiskey, and replies: "Boys, I'd like to help. But, like every man, I have my price. If you want me to run, it'll cost you a well-watered ranch in prime cattle country."

The party big-wigs exchange glances and nods. Their spokesman rises from his big leather chair, extends his hand towards the beaming candidate, and exclaims: "Done!"

Now who would you say this politician was? A Texan, surely? Lyndon Baines Johnson? George W Bush? Some corrupt citizen of the Lone Star State where elections were regularly franchised out to party bosses who, when it came to vote-rigging, only ever had one question: "Do you want us to count 'em, or vote 'em?" (Meaning: Do you want us to stuff the ballot boxes, or merely round up the required number of bribed and/or intimidated electors?)

Well, to be honest, this story isn't about Texan - or even American - politics. I only used words like "ranchers" and "White House" so that you'd have no difficulty in recognising all the behind-the-scenes deal-making for what it was: political corruption.

Had I told you from the beginning that we were talking about New Zealand farmers and businessmen, and that the politician negotiating the price of his co-operation was the future National Party Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, then you would already be objecting: "So what? That's not corruption. It's not illegal to buy somebody a farm!"

I remember my old editor at The Independent Business Weekly, Warren Berryman, shaking his head in wonderment when, once again, some international outfit declared New Zealand to be the least corrupt country on Earth. Warren was born in the United States and had lived what might, euphemistically, be called "a colourful life".

"This is one of the most corrupt countries I've ever lived in", he told me. "It's everywhere you look - but you Kiwis just don't see it. New Zealand tops all these surveys not because it's corruption-free, but because New Zealanders have become experts at looking at corruption and calling it something else."

How much longer, I wonder, is the rest of the world going to be hoodwinked by Kiwis' perverse willingness to substitute an ornamental teaspoon for a spade?

Imagine a foreign corporate investor reading an account of the New Zealand Government's management of the process of securing a world-class convention centre for its largest city. Can't you just see his eyes flicking back to the top of the story to make sure that he's reading about New Zealand - and not some dodgy regime in the developing world.

Because, let's be honest: if we were reading about a prime minister meeting privately, over dinner, with the operator of the country's largest casino; if we learned that his government was seriously considering changing the gaming laws to the advantage of said casino operator in return for it stumping-up the cash for said convention centre; if we discovered that civil servants were operating outside official procedural guidelines and that Treasury concerns about this lack of proper process were being ignored; then wouldn't the last place we'd think we were reading about be "the world's least corrupt nation" - New Zealand?

And hasn't the Deputy Auditor- General, Phillippa Smith, proved the late Warren Berryman absolutely correct by first detailing an extraordinary series of highly irregular activities on the part of New Zealand politicians and civil servants, only to conclude that she has no "substantive" issues with the outcome?

And doesn't it remind you of those movies in which an obese southern sheriff interposes his sweating bulk between the bloodied bodies lying face-down in the street and the gathering crowd of townspeople, saying: "Nothing to see here, folks. Y'all just run along home now. Everything's under control."

Because isn't that precisely what Prime Minister John Key's Mr Fix-it - Steven Joyce - has been telling us to do all week?

And isn't that because New Zealand is much closer to that sleepy southern town than we'd like to think?

Ours is an extremely intimate society in which "ordinary" citizens know (and are known by) all manner of "important" people. In such close-knit communities it is often unhelpful to rely too literally on the black letters of the law.

When everybody knows where everybody else's bodies are buried, setting forth in search of wrong- doing with an ornamental teaspoon arguably makes more sense than marching off with a spade.

And once the tradition of digging with teaspoons becomes established, the use of a spade becomes even more dangerous. Who knows what dirty deals, sleazy quid-pro-quos and ghastly miscarriages of justice might be uncovered if an honest shovel was ever allowed to turn over the topsoil of "corruption-free" New Zealand?

The Press