The Washington Post recently addressed a question relevant to all democracies where politicians must raise money to fund their efforts to win support: when is a campaign contribution a bribe?
It cited the case of a former Alabama governor who insisted he had not known he was coming close to the line where a contribution became both a bribe and a crime. The critical issue for prosecutors was proving a generous contribution had been made “in return for an explicit promise or undertaking by the official to perform or not to perform an official act”.
But what about voters who would be hurt if Mitt Romney became president and cut their health and social security benefits? If they donate $20 to re-elect President Obama and he later expanded the benefits, has he been bribed?
Somewhere there is a boundary. Drawing the line is the challenge. One American commentator argues that everyone who gives money to a politician does so for one reason: they want the politician to do something to benefit someone.
New Zealand is credited with having an almost “corruption-free” business and political reputation. Transparency International ranks us second (behind Denmark) as the least corrupt country in the world. The OECD regularly admires our transparency, quality of policy decision-making and lack of corruption.
But we could do better. Government negotiations around the SkyCity convention centre raised suspicions about the way economic favours were being dispensed. The Government's dealings with Warner Bros over The Hobbit movies raised similar issues, although the public was too delighted by the outcome to be unduly fussed about the process that produced it.
The Green Party a year ago established the extent to which senior government ministers and their staffs had accepted corporate hospitality from Westpac Bank at a time when the Government's master banking contract, held by Westpac, was under review.
Prime Minister John Key seemed to take the point. Opening the lucrative contract to competition for the first time in 23 years, he said, would be “healthy”. A year later this hasn't happened. By Mr Key's yardstick, we may complain, things aren't quite as healthy on that front as they might be.