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Winston Peters. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Ralston: Political-donation scandals are spreading like a virus

New Zealand's farcical electoral donation laws make the whiff of scandal hard to quarantine.

The New Zealand First political-donations scandal is spreading like a coronavirus, infecting MPs who do not even belong to that wealthy party. The revelation that the lobbying firm of NZ First Foundation trustee Doug Woolerton tried to get a parliamentary select committee to change planned legislation on foreign ownership affecting property developers such as Conrad Properties – which then quietly donated $55,000 to the foundation – drew into the mess Labour and National MPs infected by contact with Woolerton.

Our electoral donation laws are a farce. Donations above $15,000 must have their donors’ names publicly declared. Donations of $14,999.99 and less do not. Multiple donations just under the $15,000 threshold seem to be easily disguised by either using different related entities or simply not disclosing the extra donations by the same donor.

Obviously, those laws should be changed. Donations of more than $1000 should be identified and the onus put on political parties to check that no related entities are making multiple payments.

“Cash for favours” is a strain of political corruption that has engulfed administrations around the world over the years. Restricting anonymous donations to no more than $1000 would ensure New Zealand is inoculated against that disease. The only reason someone gives big money to a political party and then demands their names be kept secret is because they believe observers might draw their own conclusions about the reasons for the largesse bestowed.

Usually, it would be the media or vigilant bloggers who draw public conclusions about that kind of thing but, in the case of the NZ First Foundation donations, the opposite seems to apply, with a Whale Oil-connected blog running covert photographs of a journalist talking to a former NZ First president, Lester Gray, seemingly blowing the cover of a whistleblower.

Whale Oil himself, Cameron Slater, appears to be beached by health issues and legal problems, but his wife, known as The Spanish Bride, is running the blog site. Where would the blog have got those photos? Well, a close associate of the Whale has been involved in fundraising for … NZ First. Winston Peters’ frantic backpedalling after implying his party took the pictures doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, either.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is struggling to maintain the position that the NZ First donation saga is no business of hers, despite the fact that her Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Peters, is caught in the middle of it. She can do that only until the point that the police or Serious Fraud Office decide whether or not to act.

If NZ First is charged, surely Ardern will have to stand down Peters and NZ First ministers until a verdict is reached. National’s Simon Bridges has handed her a gift by declaring National would not deal with NZ First and, therefore, Peters really cannot threaten to bring down the Government if stood down. NZ First would be dog tucker in any snap election that occurred as a result.

Meanwhile, of course, National has contracted its own donation-scandal virus. Four individuals are charged with offences relating to big sums donated “anonymously” to a National Party branch. Bridges is trying to quarantine the fallout by claiming no one from National itself is in the dock. We will see if that is enough to protect the party, and him, once the issue comes before the court.

One thing is for sure. The scandals mentioned are surely reason enough to clean up the laws relating to political donations.

This column was first published in the February 29, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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