Tuesday, February 04, 2020

If this is within the rules, the rules are not good enough

Last year, RNZ obtained a stash of documents about the secret "New Zealand First Foundation", which funds the NZ First party and apparently launders donations for them. Some of the donors have already been exposed, and their identities raise serious questions about secret influence and cash for policy. RNZ has now named some more of them - and it turns out that the "anti-establishment" party is funded by New Zealand's richest man. But there's also a pattern of behaviour which suggests a deliberate attempt to avoid disclosure:

Last year companies owned by New Zealand's richest man donated nearly $30,000 to the Foundation in two amounts that each fell $5.01 short of the $15,000.01 level at which political donations are publicly disclosed.

Church Bay Farm, which is 100 percent owned by Graeme Hart, donated $14,995 to the New Zealand First Foundation on 29 March, 2019, according to documents seen by RNZ.

On the same day Walter & Wild, which owns the Hubbards, Hansells and Gregg's food brands, also donated $14,995 to the Foundation. Walter and Wild is two-thirds owned by Graeme Hart with the remaining third owned by his son Harry Hart.

And he's not the only one. There are other series of donations from the Van Den Brink family, and Conrad Properties. They're all perfectly legal - or, as politicians love to say, "within the rules". Its obviously legal to donate just less than the disclosure threshold, and if you look at past party donation returns, its clear that donations from multiple entities controlled by the same person are treated separately. And yet, its blatantly obvious to anyone looking at them that despite being laundered through separate legal persons, these donations all ultimately have the same sources. Which suggests that our rules really aren't good enough, in that they allow substantial amounts to be donated in secret while the ultimate identity of the donor can be legally hidden.

At this stage, it is worth pointing out that the government has a bill before the House at the moment which could fix this. The Electoral Amendment Bill is just out of select committee, but could be amended in the committee stage to radicly lower the disclosure threshold (to, say, $500), and to treat donations by related companies as being from the same source (or even to restrict donations to eligible voters). But back in November, the government rules out any such changes. Which tells us that they are OK with the status quo, and therefore OK with corruption. Which means that no-one who cares about democracy should be OK with them.