Sunday, June 22, 2014

This is why we needed the Electoral Finance Act

The Herald today finally has their bombshell about Donghua Liu, reporting that he "spent more than $150,000 on the previous Labour government":

Liu's signed statement was dated May 3, two days after Williamson's resignation. It said:
  • Liu paid "close to $100,000" for wine at a 2007 Labour Party fundraiser;

  • That he spent $50-60,000 hosting then-labour minister Rick Barker on a cruise on the Yangtze River in China in 2007; and

  • That Liu visited Barker in Hawke's Bay in 2006, having dinner with him at an exclusive lodge and then meeting for breakfast the next morning. Liu said he made a donation to Hawke's Bay Rowing, which Barker was associated with.
Barker previously told the Herald that he could barely remember having dinner.
Naturally, there's no mention of a $100,000 donation in Labour's 2007 party donation return. But there's a reason for this: our electoral law at the time did not count over-valued purchases as "donations". So, you could pay $100,000 for a $20 bottle of wine as a backhanded way of slipping a party or a candidate some cash in exchange for a favour, and they would not have to report it in any way to the public. Things have changed since then: In December 2007 Labour passed the Electoral Finance Act. And while National railed against it and promised to repeal it, they re-enacted its transparency provisions (which counted over-valued purchases as donations, replaced "candidate knowledge" with reasonable knowledge, busted trusts and made hiding donations a crime) unchanged. It speaks volumes to how accepted those changes have become that pundits and political insiders and even political scientists who should know better are now apparently incapable of imagining that the law was ever any different. (I guess there's an alternative explanation that those pundits and insiders are total goldfish with no memory, or ignoring inconvenient facts because they have axes to grind, which is believable. The political scientists OTOH have no excuse because they actively debated the law at the time). So, no prosecution. It does however stink, and its a powerful reminder of why the Electoral Finance Act was necessary. As for Barker's Yangtze tour, its not a donation. It may however be a bribe (and it certainly looks that way to the public). Interestingly, Barker didn't declare it as a gift or overseas travel costs in the 2008 Register of Pecuniary Interests (which covered 2007). That may have been a contempt of Parliament. But as he is no longer an MP, and the rules around investigations of breaches of privilege are pretty strict, he's got away with it. The best we can do is subject him to the public contempt and vituperation he deserves.