A Culture of Impunity?

During the dark years of dictatorship in South America in the 1970s and 1980s, there emerged a phrase to capture the attitude of the elites who benefitted from such rule: the culture of impunity. It referred not only to the attitude of the uniformed tyrants who ran the regimes, but more to that of the civilian elites who gave them social and economic support, and who benefitted lavishly thanks to the repression and restrictive laws on basic rights of association, dissent and movement. These civilian elites literally lived above the law, since they could, if not be directly protected by the regime’s thugs, be immune from prosecution or liability for crimes and other transgressions they committed simply because of who they were. Murders, rapes, abuse of servants, violent attacks on members of the public–all of these type of behavior were excused, ignored or bought off rather than be held legally accountable (I do not mention justice simply because it is impossible to have real justice under dictatorial conditions). Although there was variation in the attitude of some elites and cross-country differences appeared as well, the bottom line is that during the authoritarian period in South America a culture of impunity developed that was one of the salient social characteristics of the regimes in question.

With that in mind I ask readers if such a culture of impunity exists in NZ. I ask because it strikes me that although diluted and less repressive in genesis, there appears to be an attitude of impunity in the political and economic elite. They can buy silence and name suppression when they misbehave; with a wink and a nod they accommodate employment for their friends and provide sinecures for each other (think of various Boards); they consider themselves better informed, in the know, more worldly and therefore unaccountable to the popular masses when it comes to making policy (think of the use of parliamentary urgency to ram through contentious legislation and the NZDF command lies about what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan); they award themselves extraordinary powers in some  times of crisis (Christchurch) while absolving themselves of  responsibility in others (Rena). They use the Police for their own purposes (Teapot Tapes and Occupy evictions, the latter happening not because of public consensus but done by summary executive fiat). More generally, think of the lack of transparency in how government decisions are made and the duplicity of elite statements about economic issues (say, the price of wage goods) and political matters (e.g., recent internal security legislation). Coupled with equally opaque decision-making in NZ’s largest publicly-traded firms, or the cozy overlap between sectors of the judiciary and other elites, the list of traded favors and protections is long.

None of this would matter if NZ was run by Commodore Bainimarama. It would just be another Pacific island state ruled by a despot and his pals. But as a liberal parliamentary democracy NZ regularly scores highly on Freedom House and Transparency International indexes, to the point that it is often mentioned at the least corrupt country on earth (which is laughable on the face of things and which raises questions about the methodologies involved in such surveys). To be sure, in NZ traffic cops do not take cash bribes and judges do not have prostitutes procured for them by QCs representing defendants, but corruption does not have to be blatant and vulgar to be pervasive. And in the measure that elite sophistication in accommodating fellow elites outside of the universal standards applicable to everyone else is accepted as routine and commonplace, then a culture of impunity exists as well.

My experience in NZ academia, two respectable volunteer organizations and in dealing with national and local government officials suggests to me that such a culture of impunity does exist. It may not be that of Pinochet, Videla, Stroessner, Banzer or Geisel, but it seems pervasive. It appears to have gotten worse since I arrived in 1997, which may or may not be the fault of market-driven social logics and the “greed is good” mentality that has captured the imaginations of financiers, developers and other business  magnates (or it could just be a product of a long-established tradition of bullying, which has now spilled over into elite attitudes towards the country as a whole).

Mind you, this does not make NZ a bad place. It simply means that there is an encroaching, subversive authoritarian sub-culture at play amongst the NZ political and economic elite that undermines the purported egalitarianism and equality on which the country is ostensibly founded (I am sure there are sectors of Maoridom who will take reasoned exception to that claim). And if so, has the corrosive culture seeped into the body politic at large so that almost anyone is a relative position of power vis a vis others thinks that s/he can get away with behavior otherwise contrary to normal standards of decency and responsibility?

Does NZ has a culture of impunity?


11 thoughts on “A Culture of Impunity?

  1. If there is, then it seems to be a bastard child of both Rob Muldoon and Ruth Richardson. It doesn’t put bullets in the heads of Kiwi ‘dissidents’, but it does ostracise and discredit them. Think culture war pig farming and wedge politics, as employed by the likes of Crosby/Textor and Karl Rove.

    It happened to a large degree in Sir Joh’s Queensland during the same period as South America.

  2. Yes. Particularly in councils, as exemplified currently by the ‘executive mayor’ in supercity Auckland, and the mayor/ceo ‘executive decision’ farces in Christchurch.

    But then, councils have had a corporate hierarchy structure ever since Prebble (LGA, 1987), and what describes a culture of impunity better than a company structure, which is inherently a dictatorship (no matter how nice and ‘team-oriented’ your boss is).

    David Henderson springs to mind as an example of the culture in NZ business – he openly admitted on National Radio to constructing buildings without RMA & council consents, laughing about how council staff would retrospectively approve them. Try that for your addition to your garage…

    Or Krukziener, trying to get more building projects off the ground while fighting bankruptcy; Bryers, trading in Oz in exactly the same way that saw his ’empire’ collapse in NZ. Yet none of them even face jail, but swipe a few thousand from a bank till and clang go the cell doors (not that I have ;) ).

    The key seems to be total lack of accountability mechanisms – you can’t recall your MP or councillor or mayor, and gutless civil mechanisms (small claims court, etc).

  3. Just a quick note on those corruption surveys – as far as I know they measure *perceptions* of levels of corruption, which is of course a laughable measure.

  4. Yes, the TI corruption index is a survey of *perceptions* of corruption.

    A big problem we have in NZ is complacency. Our levels of corruption are quite low – as you say, you can’t bribe a traffic cop out of a ticket – and so maybe we don’t take it seriously enough.

    But there is no formal official definition of corruption in NZ. Without a definition, how do people know what is being measured? What should be included – only events involving officials misusing their position for gain? If so, lots of what has been mentioned here is not corruption but something-else-still-not-good (culture of impunity fits well).

  5. Fascinating post Pablo which deserves a wider audience. To the list you have mentioned you should add the restoration of knighthoods to the honours system and how the honours system itself operates.

    Brian Fallow in the Herald has described the SOE sale off as a Solution in search of a question. Which begs the question who exactly will benefit from the “mixed ownership model”?

  6. And just before everyone congratulates themselves that it is only a blue/national problem, remember Helen and her speeding to the rugger, accepting donations from non-residents, etc. And she secured a nice little non-job for herself at the UN. Yep, our “elites” are all rather parasitic.

  7. Thank you for your thoughtful observations.

    I would include in your list the appalling overload of the office of the Ombudsmen and the wicked use of delay by this Government in releasing information under the OIA. In no small part this has led to an increased burden on the Ombudsmen office as people appeal this Government’s refusals to release information as requested.

    many use the OI Act to facilitate evidence for hearings, and in my own work I have had two cases go to hearing and complete before the Ombudsmen has ruled on the appeal.

  8. With each passing day I think this is one of the most important posts I’ve read in a long time. TOday’s teapot saga announcements reek of a culture of impunity.

  9. “wicked use of delay by this Government in releasing information under the OIA.”

    A change in law is required: Every requests cost $1000. Every request which the govt would like to decline, the dept head, nay Minister, must appear before a tribunal of Ombudsmen to state the reasons why. The info must be presented to the Ombudsmen and if satisfied that there is no good reason to decline, they can release direct to the person making the request. (yes, I can already see some flaws)

  10. In New Zealand, an offer of a bribe is indeed a 1-way ticket to a prison term. The police are honest. Perhaps the perception that we are free of corruption is broadly correct, even if the international surveys employ laughable methodologies.

    But we are not free of abuse of power and of parliamentary urgency, of nepotism, of cronyism & mutual backscratching, of invoking Maori heritage as moral pretexts for what are in fact venal and self-interested ends, and finally, of all sorts of jack-ups.

    A major problem are the flaws in the way the House of Representative works, flaws revealed in this public lecture by Kiwi expat Jeremy Waldron:

    I simply do not like the fact that once Cabinet has settled on the text of a bill, its eventual passage is but an empty formality. Moreover, any dissent within Cabinet is kept out of the public domain, under the constitutional principle of collective responsibility.

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