The time is right for New Zealand to consider adopting a Committee on Standards in Public Life and a code of conduct for MPs, to ensure it remains relatively transparent and free of corruption.
That was the message from Michael Macaulay, the deputy director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, in a lecture on whether New Zealand should have its own version of Britain’s Committee on Standards in Public Life.
The committee – which acts as an advisory body – was set up in the 1990s in the wake of various scandals, including one in which MPs were caught taking cash for asking questions in Parliament. The committee has an independent chair, six independent members, and three members nominated by political parties.
Its “very substantial” achievements included getting seven core ‘principles of public life’ – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership – “adopted by almost every public body in the UK”.
It had created an “ethics infrastructure” and led to much greater transparency on political donations, Macaulay said.
However, as an advisory body, it relied on political will to have its recommendations adopted, and this was “not a priority” for the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. “More recently their [the committee’s] advice hasn’t been taken … indeed in some cases their advice has been ignored.”
In New Zealand, although the country continued to be seen as highly transparent, there was “a feeling of complacency … because New Zealand continues to be highly regarded, internally it’s letting itself slide quite a bit”.
Macaulay said the absence of a code of conduct for New Zealand MPs was “really astounding – in this day and age, it’s the least of the arrangements you should have.” A code of conduct would cover a register of gifts and hospitality, declarations of interest, and how MPs were handling their dealings with lobbyists.
New Zealand should also consider creating a standards committee, he said. It should not have enforcement powers, but it did need to be independent of government and be “bolder, more far-sighted, strategic and proactive” than the UK version. “It needs a little more bite, frankly.”
While New Zealand already had various oversight bodies – including the Parliamentary Privileges Committee, the Office of the Ombudsman and the State Services Commission – a standards committee would add “an extra layer of independence”.
That could imply that the committee would be an independent crown entity, although other options included making it an office of Parliament or extending the powers of another body such as the ombudsman.
However, Macaulay said, there was “only so much” any committee could do. Driving out corruption “requires genuine leadership, and it requires behavioural solutions as well”.