One potentially positive side effect of the New Zealand First donations saga is that it will bring to long over due attention to bear on donations and the effect that they have on New Zealand politics. The attention comes in the run up to the 2020 General Election and amid growing calls for stronger measures to control what is considered acceptable, by Members of Parliament past and present.
The Electoral Commission says that parties must report immediate donations and/or loans in excess of $30,000.
Parties may keep up to $1,500 of any anonymous donation, and up to $1,500 of any donation from an overseas person.
If an anonymous donor gives more than that, the party must pass the extra amount to us within 20 working days. If an overseas person gives more than that, the party must return the extra amount to them or, if that isn’t possible, to us within 20 working days.
However, a party can keep more of an anonymous donation if it is a ‘donation protected from disclosure’. These are payments that we make to the party on behalf of donors that want to remain anonymous. Between two successive elections, parties can receive up to $307,610 in donations protected from disclosure. If a donation will take a party over their limit, we will return the excess to the donor.
However the money donated to New Zealand political parties pales in comparison with what is donated to the Democratic and Republican parties of the United States. The money needed to cover a U.S. Presidential campaign would probably pay the basic income of every single New Zealand Member of Parliament for 40 years (based on the Parliamentary Salaries and Allowances Determination 2017). That money is used for leverage with the candidate, which is why accusations of the United States really being governed by corporations who effectively determine which party will have the White House are so effective.
Perhaps then it is telling that former Members of Parliament from both sides of the House are starting to call for donations to be dropped. Former Prime Minister Jim Bolger is just the most recent.
Member of Parliament for Botany and independent Jamie-Lee Ross has called for new rules around donations from foreigners to New Zealand political parties. Whilst some might argue that Mr Ross is acting out of spite against National for their effective expulsion from the party, the issue is one that an independent Member of Parliament can probably best carry out themselves. Mr Ross accused his former boss National leader Simon Bridges of mishandling a $100,000 donation from a Chinese by asking him to collect it and it would then be split into smaller sums to make it compliant with New Zealand
Green Party Member of Parliament Golriz Ghahraman is another who is trying to take action against donations through a Bill of Parliament. Her Bill calls for the declaring of all donations with a value greater than N.Z.$1,000 (currently $1,500).
But whether anything happens that changes donation laws before Parliament dissolves for the 2020 election is another story altogether. Parliament, despite words being uttered to the contrary, does not appear that interested in serious change in this election cycle, thus ensuring what the Guardian described as a weeping sore, will weep a bit longer yet.