We're among the least corrupt - until election time

Bribery is bribery plain and simple, writes Gerrard Eckhoff.

The Americans got it about right when they invented the term ``pork barrel politics''. The term predates the Civil war. Barrels of salted pork were given as rewards for good behaviour which inevitably meant voting the ``right'' way. The term is also defined as the appropriation of Government spending for localised projects secured primarily to bring in money to a representative's district or region. Sound familiar?

Logrolling is another popular US political expression, where candidates of various political parties are personally and mutually benefited by agreeing with the need for government expenditure in their regions. Logrolling has reached an art form in Auckland.

Within New Zealand we appear to be more direct in our description of political largesse. We simply call it bribery which is raised to an art form every three years of an election cycle. Bribery as we all know is illegal, as it spawns bribery's fast-following stablemate - corruption.

Studies show Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Haiti all make the top 10 of the world's most corrupt countries. New Zealand languishes (mercifully) in the bottom three of this index as the least corrupt country - until election time when our rating must soar somewhere near the top 10 alongside Sudan, Iraq and Turkmenistan.

Our current reputation is like gold - it doesn't rust - or does it? We can be legitimately lauded on the world stage by our politicians; most of the time, yet for six weeks every three years we, the public, are offered substantial bribes from the very people whose job it is to maintain our international reputation.

Asking a lawmaker or public official to adjust their thinking to accommodate your personal needs and showing your appreciation with a new car parked in their driveway is a corrupt practice. Practitioners are likely to end up as a guest at one of Her Majesty's leafy jails for a period of time. So how is it possible for potential lawmakers to reverse the role and bribe voters, albeit with their own money, at election time in return for a vote?

A bribe at election time can or is described as a reward given to pervert the judgement or corrupt the conduct of a voter.

As far back as 1570, bribery was described as the application of such means to gain votes at an election time.

So where or how does an election bribe from our representatives differ from, say, offering a council official an inducement to more quickly process your building consent? Or suggesting to a Customs official that if they did not search your bags an all-expenses paid holiday ticket to some foreign clime would soon be found in their mail box?

Elections should always be about better or best public policy by a political party, to be determined by the voters. A ``public good'' policy is one where all can benefit and none can be excluded. In other words, better schools, hospitals, road/rail, infrastructure. As a country, we are ignoring policy based on public good in favour of selective private good policy.

We start to invoke genuine bribery during election time especially where only certain sections of the public can benefit from a given policy.

Before the 1984 election, the National government used all manner of tax incentives for land development and fertiliser use which was immediately capitalised into the value of the farm. Farmers loved it, but North Island bush-clad hillsides didn't and often slid into gullies after a rain event. Farmers effectively developed a taste for government pork over the years and block voted for National. Many still do.

Another and perhaps the most infamous example of pork barrel politics was the selective interest-free student loans, which were only available to those at a tertiary institution.

``Free money'' to students ensured votes poured in for the Clark Government. Labour is at it again with a $50 living allowance but again only available to a select grouping.

Offering individual voters such as students, farmers and superannuitants a financial inducement to vote for a certain party is a bribe.

What is the difference between handing a student $50 a week extra this year if they vote for a given party to keep them in power and, say, offering a traffic cop $50 to tear up a ticket about to be handed to you to keep you and your car on the road?

Why is only one act illegal?

It is a great mistake of understanding to believe that democracy and Parliament are the basis of all our freedoms. It is the exercise of authority by ``we the people'' demanding Parliament itself also follows the law, especially at election time.

Gerrard Eckhoff is a retired Central Otago farmer, and former Otago regional councillor and Act MP.


 

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