I want to preface what follows with a clear statement that I love my country. New Zealand is the land of my birth, the land where my children grew up, and I am always proud to acknowledge it as my homeland. I also love my adopted country, Turkey, for other reasons entirely. However, in neither case does that love blind me to the fact that both countries have their weaknesses and problems.
One thing I find difficult to understand, though, is how those two countries are depicted in international media. Turkey is unrelentingly portrayed as a land torn by internal divisions, corruption and violence. New Zealand, on the other hand, despite much evidence to the contrary, still manages to retain a reputation for squeaky cleanliness in nature and government, a South Sea paradise of equality and opportunity.
Well, let’s start with Turkey. An article in Time Magazine in January trumpeted, “A Relentless Cycle of Terror Threatens to Tear Turkey Apart”. “The bloodshed,” we read, “has become endemic over the past year and a half, as Kurdish separatist militants and Islamic State jihadists have slaughtered hundreds, and an abortive military coup attempt left more than 200 people dead and sparked a wave of repression by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
Another source maintained that “martial law” is in force in Turkey, and the country is under threat of “military intervention” by NATO.
The recently released Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Turkey 75th out of 176 countries, equal with Bulgaria, Kuwait and Tunisia, behind the Solomon Islands and Burkina Faso, but marginally ahead of Brazil, China and India. On that list, New Zealand is ranked 2nd in the world for “perceived” lack of corruption (more on that later); the United States is 18th, and Estonia, 22nd. Well, I don’t want to single out Estonia for unfair attention, but I can’t help observing that, according to the CIA World Factbook, that tiny Baltic state is a “growing producer of synthetic drugs; increasingly important transshipment zone for cannabis, cocaine, opiates, and synthetic drugs since joining the European Union and the Schengen Accord; potential money laundering related to organized crime and drug trafficking is a concern, as is possible use of the gambling sector to launder funds; major use of opiates and ecstasy.”
An organization calling itself Freedom House has also just released a report entitled Freedom in the World 2017. Ranking all countries from 100 (Blissfully free) to 0 (Miserably enslaved), New Zealand again scores at the top end (98). The USA registers a creditable 89, while Turkey’s rating of 38 places it in the seventh group out of ten, in descending order.
OK, I’m not going to spend a lot of time here defending Turkey. Merely, I will observe that, if your intentions are bad, you can blacken pretty much anyone’s name. Paris, I understand, remains on “a high state of terrorist alert” fifteen months after 130 people were killed (slaughtered?) in a series of attacks by ISIL operatives. The state of alert continues and was justified, apparently, when a guy with a machete attempted to “storm” the Louvre Museum, and was shot by police before he could actually harm anyone. Turkey’s state of alert, on the other hand, is labelled “martial law”, and its government is accused of carrying out a “wave of repression”, despite having narrowly avoided overthrow by a military coup in July that left hundreds of civilians dead. I’m not making light of the tragedy in Paris, but come on, people!
When I first came to Istanbul in 1995, platoons of soldiers jogging around the streets carrying automatic weapons were a common feature of urban life. Martial law, high state of alert or whatever, I haven’t seen such sights here for years.
What about New Zealand, then? Well, despite scare-mongering implications by senior government spokespersons, “the last hint of terrorism,” according to a recent Bloomberg article, “came a generation ago, when French spies bombed a Greenpeace campaigning ship docked in Auckland harbor in 1985.” The focus of that article was New Zealand’s emergence as “a popular bolthole for the mega wealthy.” The reason, they suggest, is the country’s location about as distant as you can get from normal terrorist targets without actually leaving planet Earth.
Maybe those Bloomberg people are right – though if the world is indeed “going to hell in a handbasket”, as Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom reckons, the greed of those “mega wealthy” parasites would be one of the main reasons. But New Zealand may hold an additional attraction besides its isolation and natural beauty. The notorious Panama Papers, leaked to the world’s media in April 2016, brought to light documents hacked from the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca. Among the revelations:
- Details from the Panama Papers show how a stream of foreign cash became a torrent flooding into New Zealand trusts in order to avoid tax offshore.
- Tens of thousands of Panama Papers documents reveal how New Zealand, Niue, The Cook Islands and Samoa have become prime destinations for the rich to hide their financial secrets.
- Wealthy Latin Americans are using secretive, tax-free New Zealand shelf companies and trusts to help channel funds around the world.
- Mossack Fonseca actively promoted New Zealand as a good place to do business due to its tax-free status, high levels of confidentiality and legal security.
- The number of foreign trusts in New Zealand has surged to almost 10,700 this year from less than 2,000 ten years ago, according to Inland Revenue figures.
- At the centre of the New Zealand operation is Roger Thompson, a former Inland Revenue employee. His accountancy firm – Bentleys, in the heart of Auckland’s business district – is the New Zealand agent for Mossack Fonseca.
Well, I don’t know about Mexican or other Latin American tycoons, but I do know that a controversy has arisen recently over the granting of New Zealand citizenship to “technology billionaire and Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel”. The story broke when it was learned that Thiel had bought a 193-hectare waterfront estate on Lake Wanaka, near Queenstown – playground for the wealthy in NZ’s South Island. Apparently Mr Thiel was made a citizen at a private ceremony at the New Zealand consulate in Santa Monica, USA, in August 2011. It seems he failed to meet the usual requirements for citizenship, even admitting he had no intention of living in the country, but allegedly donated $NZ1 million to the relief effort after the devastating 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, and got fast-tracked.
It’s a worthy cause, of course, and you can’t criticise the guy for that – but there does seem to have been a certain amount of shady stuff surrounding the rebuild of NZ’s third largest city. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) was established in 2011 to oversee reconstruction, but seems to have been plagued by suggestions of mismanagement until it was disestablished in April 2016, with the city still far from recovered. Panel members for instance, were reportedly being paid $1,000 a day for their services, and staff numbers at one stage ballooned to 357. I don’t know if there’s any connection to Peter Thiel’s generous donation, but three former high-level CERA employees are currently under investigation for having abused their positions as public servants to carry out lucrative private property deals.
Another interesting foreign national awarded NZ citizenship under highly questionable circumstances is a gentleman known variously as Yong Ming Yan, Liu Yang, William Yan and Bill Liu. Despite warnings from the Department of Internal Affairs, evidence that the guy was using fraudulent documents, the vast sums he loses gambling in Auckland’s Skycity casino and his Number 5 ranking on the Chinese Government’s list of most-wanted criminals, the NZ Government is in no hurry to hand him over, and he is said to have recently cut a secret deal with the NZ police after $40 million of his assets had been frozen on suspicion of money-laundering – the charge he is wanted for in China.
In view of the above, you may be surprised to learn that Peter Thiel’s name does not appear on National Business Review’s Rich List for New Zealand. Nor is there a single Chinese name, in spite of the fact that Wang, Lee, Chen and Liu have overtaken Smith as the top four surnames in Auckland. The Neo-con National Government frequently reassures local citizens that the remarkable influx of immigrants from China is totally unrelated to the explosion of prices that has seen Auckland become the 20th most expensive city in the world to buy a house, with an average selling price of $911,800. According to that source, you can buy cheaper in Berlin, Madrid or Dubai!
Those people compiling the Corruptions Perceptions Index made some interesting observations in their report, one of which was “This year’s results highlight the connection between corruption and inequality, which feed off each other to create a vicious circle between corruption, unequal distribution of power in society, and unequal distribution of wealth.” Well, no surprises there, but in the light of that, let’s consider a recent UNICEF report stating that “As many as 28 per cent of New Zealand children – about 295,000 – currently live in poverty.” An article in the New Zealand Herald quoted the mayor of a region in the North Island as saying, “subcultures of poverty” persisted in the area despite years of central Government programmes.
“Our failure to deal with entrenched poverty means we are turning our young people into unskilled dependants and, in some cases, drug addicts, gang members and criminals,” he said.
In the mean time, guys like Yong Ming Yan, or whatever his real name is, can steal money from China (at least $129 million, they claim), launder it in New Zealand, lose $300 million in Auckland’s Skycity casino without jumping off the harbour bridge – and be rewarded with citizenship. What’s next? A knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday honours? For sure the Skycity owners will be pretty happy with the guy who made such a generous contribution to their $1 billion revenue last year. I can’t see the obvious benefits to New Zealand, though, given that those owners apparently live in Australia, and most of the profits go offshore.
All of which led me to ask, who is compiling the statistics and writing those reports about freedom and corruption in the world? So I checked out Freedom House. According to its own website:
“Freedom House was established in 1941 in New York City . . . with the quiet encouragement of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to encourage popular support for American involvement in World War II at a time when isolationist sentiments were running high in the United States.
Having been created in response to the threat of one great totalitarian evil, Nazism, Freedom House took up the struggle against the other great twentieth century totalitarian threat, Communism, after the end of World War II. The organization’s leadership rightly believed that the spread of democracy was the best weapon against totalitarian ideologies. Freedom House embraced as its mission the expansion of freedom around the world and the strengthening of human rights and civil liberties here at home. As a result, Freedom House strongly endorsed the post-war Atlantic Alliance, as well as such key policies and institutions as the Marshall Plan and NATO.”
Wikipedia provides further insights. I didn’t check out all the board members, but four names caught my eye: Kenneth Adelman, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Donald Rumsfield and Paul Wolfowitz. Mr Adelman was a long-term member of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, a “lifelong neo-con activist” who was a big supporter of the US destruction of Iraq, and outspoken proponent of the discredited claim that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Brzezinski, clearly of good Protestant Anglo-Saxon stock, is known, among other achievements, for cosying up to Communist China, overseeing the transition of Iran from an important US ally to a major terrorist threat, and arming the Taliban in Afghanistan to oppose the Soviet Union. Rumsfeld was US Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford, and again under George Dubya Bush. He was a major organiser of US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and supporter of using “enhanced interrogation techniques” on unconvicted prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Wolfowitz is another neo-conservative, former president of the World Bank and once considered by the George Dubya administration as possible head of the CIA.
FREEDOM House? Phooey to them, say I! What value would you place on any report of theirs?
As a conclusion that may or may not be relevant to the present discussion, I read reports of an interview with President Donald Trump the other day. Apparently he had appeared on the Fox News channel where the interviewer was giving him a hard time about his refusal to criticise Russia’s Vladimir Putin, demanding to know how he could lend support to “a killer”. Trump’s quoted response?
“There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?”
I have to tell you, the big DT went up considerably in my estimation. The USA has had a few presidents in recent years making political capital out of their Christian faith. This, however, is the first time I have heard one echo the words of that religion’s eponymous founder quoted in Matthew 7:5.
“You hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of your own eye; and then shall you see clearly to cast out the speck out of your brother’s eye.”