Grubby white collar crime: Life without an ethical framework
Jun 15, 2010
The New Zealand media has been awash over the last few days, with news about the unauthorised credit card purchases by former Ministers of the Crown, including purchases for flowers, massages, and a set of golf clubs. While they have all paid the money back, it was a clear breach of parliamentary service rules. It is a practise that in the business sector would result in withdrawal of credit privileges, and possible dismissal.
Former Cabinet Minister Shane Jones, although not the biggest spender, publicly confessed to hiring around 50 porno movies while staying at hotels, and has come in for special media treatment. His wife and family are furious with him, and those of us who regard him as potentially a significant Maori political statesman, are by turns, angry with him, and saddened. I spoke with Shane yesterday at the airport, and we shared about the cathartic nature of confession, and its spiritual value.
Myself and others will continue to support him. His leader will punish him. After a period of relegation, he will emerge stronger and wiser for the experience, strengthened through the process of redemption, and with a character stronger for being forged in the crucible of public opinion. When parliamentarians are forced to contend with their own sins, there is usually a place for a second chance; for confession, apologies, expressions of regret and remorse, and ultimately, the possibility of reconciliation and reinstatement. I am pleased that is so; if ever my own sins become public property, I pray for the same opportunity.
Not so for those that make up the underclass of our nation. New Zealand is the 6th most unequal nation in the world, and the difference between the haves and the have-nots is steadily widening. Their offending is of a more primal nature. Those that live in grinding poverty are vulnerable to those factors which predetermine criminal behaviour – poor health, inadequate and crowded housing, poor or no pre-school education, mental health issues, drug and alcohol dependency, unemployment, and lack of access to adequate social support.
About 25% of that group are sufficiently resilient not to offend; recent research suggests there is such a thing as a resiliency gene. When all those factors cluster within one family, child abuse, family violence, and serous violent offending is the consequence. Once apprehended, there is little opportunity for offenders to confess, apologise, and be redeemed back into their community. Forty per cent of all those in prison, are serving less than 12 months, and are not a public risk – they are sent there as part of the ‘tough on crime’ policy.
Restorative justice is apparently not suited for these low-lifers. The moral superiority of those in power (who only occasionally get caught with their hands in the till) is reinforced when the publicly condemn violent behaviour, and treating those offenders harshly.
The Place of Ethics and Morality in Crime
The place of ethics and morality in the credit card saga is not up for discussion. There is going to be a review of the credit card rules. The rules are already clear and unambiguous; capable of being understood by a responsible twelve year old. The other solution, offered by Prime Minister Key, is to cut up the offender’s credit cards.
In 1972, I studied the Delinquency Control Institute, University of Southern California. Those police officers attending were taught that there are two conditions necessary to the commission of a crime; desire and opportunity. Prime Minister Keys’ solutions centre around:
Compliance: If the rules around the use of credits cards are absolutely clear, and there are prescribed penalties for breaching the rules, then that may inhibit the desire to offend. Some will find ways of circumventing the rules. Ministers have already showed they were well capable of that, following the investigation of last year’s scandal over the provision of Ministerial housing.
Risk Management: By removing their credit cards, they are denied the opportunity to offend. It’s a solution that presumes a lack of moral or ethical standards, and that normal human beings cannot be trusted to do the right thing. It works for as long as the perpetrator is without a credit card. In the meantime, they can find some other part of the system to rip off – after all, they could still be gaps in the Ministerial housing policy.
In a society which is becoming increasingly secular, the idea that Christian ethical teaching and values should guide our moral behaviour is becoming increasingly untenable. The difficulty we have is that society is still searching for a universal value system which has the same impact. It is no coincidence that the two best performing prison units in New Zealand are Prison Fellowship’s faith-based unit at Rimutaka, and the Maori focus units. The former is based on Christian ethical teaching, the latter teach a system of cultural beliefs which help offenders shape and make sense of the world, and their responsibilities to it. A focus on shaping social identity and transforming behaviour through a foundational belief system, can be a major contributor to the reduction of reoffending.
John Key’s solutions for the Minister’s will modify his Minister’s behaviour by denying them the opportunity to offend, and/or making the consequences of offending outweigh the benefits. It will not change their perception of themselves, as Ministers of the Crown, and their responsibilities to themselves. their whanau and the public. For that to happen, the Prime Minister will need to arrange a facilitated discussion with them about what it means to be appointed as a Ministers, and what a code of ethics for Ministers, might look like. Once they develop a strong social identity around what that means, and the sort of example the should set for the children of this nation, and their own families and whanau, then any belief that they have an inalienable right to rip off the taxpayer, and the parliamentary system, would fade into the dark distance.
In the meantime, Prime Minister, take the lollies out of the bag.