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A simple way to clean up the political donations mess

The Greens have an idea for cleaning up political donations, starting with “an independent citizens’ assembly” because, they say, “it’s clear that Parliament is incapable of [making] meaningful reforms to itself”.

Here’s a different idea for cleaning up political donations, which is simpler and more cost-effective than the Greens’ proposal: obey the law. Everyone else must, whatever their line of work, and political parties should, too.

Just because parties and individuals sometimes fall foul of electoral law does not automatically mean the law needs “reform”, just as restaurants falling foul of hygiene regulations does not necessarily mean there is something wrong with the regulations. Improving compliance with electoral law should be political parties’ first response to problems with handling donations. From the public perspective, seeing parties and individuals charged and/or investigated indicates that the law is working just fine.

The area of donations feels messier than usual partly because of some good investigative reporting by RNZ into donations to the New Zealand First Foundation. It has also been in the news because New Zealand First leader Winston Peters revealed the party was associated with whoever photographed one of its former presidents talking to two journalists, including one from RNZ. That photograph appeared on a website about the same time that Peters was crying foul that the party’s privacy had been breached. The photo can be seen as a warning to party members and former members to keep mum because the party might be watching. It also reveals a cavalier disregard for impinging on journalists’ work – just another example of the disdain with which Peters treats the media when it’s trying to do its job of holding him to account.

The Cabinet Manual, which NZ First and Labour endorsed and said they were committed to in their coalition agreement, outlines the behaviour expected of ministers in their ministerial, political and personal capacities. “In all these roles and at all times, ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards,” the manual says. Peters himself is not accused of any wrongdoing. But no one is more associated with NZ First than him. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s refusal to be drawn on the matter ill behoves a self-styled conviction politician.

RNZ reported that some wealthy New Zealanders, including significant players in the racing industry, have been donors to the NZ First Foundation, even though one of those donors was quoted as saying he was not aware of the foundation. The Electoral Commission said that based on the information available, it had formed the view that the foundation had received donations that should have been treated as donations for the NZ First Party. In the commission’s view, the donations were not properly transmitted to the party and not disclosed as required by law. The Serious Fraud Office is now investigating. It is warmed up on electoral law, having just laid charges against four individuals concerning donations to the National Party.

A robust democracy needs political parties to be sufficiently funded to actively participate in elections. That is not cheap and parties rely on donations to foot it in an election campaign. If the $15,000 limit above which a single donation must be declared – and the $40,000 from one donor in a year – is considered the wrong level, then parties can make a case to set it higher or lower. Whatever the limit, the incentive to give just under the cut-off point will always apply to those who would prefer, for whatever reason, not to have their names disclosed.

The ability to solicit donations is a reasonable way for parties to pay for their activities, and the ability to donate is, equally, a reasonable way for New Zealanders to support their preferred party. The alternative is state funding. Nothing suggests that would find favour with the public.

Regardless of the outcome of the investigations involving National and NZ First, perhaps all parties need to reconsider the training they provide to MPs, staff, officers and volunteers about the laws affecting donations.

As for the Greens’ idea of an independent citizens’ assembly, made of randomly selected private citizens, rather like jury selection, no. We have an assembly of citizens: we call it Parliament and its job is to make laws for all New Zealanders. Political parties that are unable to transparently manage their donations should not be surprised if the public asks whether they might also be unable to transparently manage the country.

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

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