Political donations issues highlight need to change the law

Over the last few months, questions have been raised about how New Zealand First has handled political donations with regards to the Electoral Finance Act. That has been referred to the Police, who promptly sent it to the Serious Fraud Office. It has led to the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges and his Deputy Paula Bennett both saying that the Government needs to stand down New Zealand First Leader Winston Peters as happened in 2008.

A couple of days ago it emerged National had received two significant donations of $100,000 which had to be declared but are alleged to have been broken into substantially smaller chunks to avoid disclosure laws. Now former Member of Parliament, Member for Howick Jami-Lee Ross has been charged along with three Chinese nationals by the Serious Fraud Office over them.

Mr Ross was hospitalized in 2018 following a mental break down during which time he levelled damaging allegations against the National Party. They after it was revealed that National might not have declared a significant donation from one of the three Chinese nationals, Zhang Yikun. Mr Ross was expelled from the National Party and became an independent whilst continuing to hold the seat of Howick, but as an independent M.P.

These two cases, separate as they are, highlight clearly the need for decisive action on the subject of electoral finance law. Is the Act, which was passed in 2006 following revelations nearly every party in Parliament misused money in the 2005 and had to pay it back, no longer working? If so, what needs to be changed?

These questions and others about our E.F.A. will be asked by more people as we approach the 2020 General Election. With confidence in politicians and the system that elects them to office falling, being seen to want positive changes that make the Act fairer and more accountable to the New Zealand public, is not so much a “good idea” any more as it is essential. Minister of Justice Andrew Little appeared to realize when he told New Zealand that he might bypass the Justice Committee in order to get changes through the House before the 2020 General Election.

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.

Along with the two donation issues mentioned above, there is also concern that China is trying to buy influence in New Zealand politics by getting Members of Parliament involved with Chinese Communist Party activities. At some of these events, I have little doubt that donations are being talked about in a broad sense.

The cake maker and the sewerage system

Is there anybody who is going to listen to the story? It’s all about a District Council, a cake maker and a sewerage system…

In March 2016, during a substantial flood, the Waiho River near Franz Josef broke its banks and destroyed the sewerage ponds that service the town’s sewerage system. When the Westland District Council tendered a new contract to rebuild the ponds, it awarded the contract Techno Economic Services.

This is a new business. It was established by Neha Bubna who is the sole shareholder and owns another business called Cake Culture in the town of Waiuku near Manukau Harbour. Neha Bubna denies any knowledge of the contract that was awarded to T.E.S.

A man named Vivek Goel awarded the contract in his capacity as Council Assets Manager. Prior to working for the Westland District Council he was behind several failed businesses. Now, the Serious Fraud Office has been contacted by the Westland District Council to investigate whether fraudulent practices occurred in the tendering of the contract to build the sewerage system.

A Westland District ratepayer would be wanting answers to the conduct of the Council on matters that have significant implications for ratepayers. The sewerage system ponds obviously need to be rebuilt somewhere, but in their design and construction allowance for the fact that the ponds are on an active flood plain, which may be subject to avulsion of the Waiho River, needs to be made.

Unfortunately this is not the only major headache afflicting Franz Josef. In December last year, the Westland District Council revoked Plan Change 7, which acknowledged the presence of the Alpine Fault and the likelihood of significant ground displacement through Franz Josef township when the next earthquake occurs. This indirectly affects the location of the new sewerage ponds, lest they be subject to lateral spreading – where the position of ground strata is different from where it started in an earthquake, because different layers moved at different speeds.

It is – in a financial and planning sense – a rather stinky situation to find such a lovely little township in. Should the Serious Fraud Office investigation expose corruption in how the the Council has handled the situation, proverbial gas mask will be mandatory.


Trans Pacific Partnership dealt blow

Thsi morning New Zealand time, the United States Senate and Congress delivered a substantial blow to the Trans Pacific Partnership when one of the pieces of legislation necessary for speeding it through to President Barak Obama’s desk was defeated.

Although the measure was defeated, the Fast Track legislation itself was narrowly passed by 219-211 votes in Congress.

What does this mean for New Zealand’s prospects of a useful trade agreement?

Before we answer that, let us be honest about what a trade agreement is, as opposed to what the Trans Pacific Partnership is. There is disinformation being deliberately spread around to give misleading perceptions of what is happening. Some of the disinformation is simply bad planning on the part of supposedly reputable news sources on Facebook. Other disinformation is deliberate, in order to advance a particular stance for or against the Trans Pacific Partnership.

In theory – but not necessarily in practice – a free trade agreement is supposed to reduce barriers to trade around the world. It is supposed to remove measures such as tariffs and what some politicians call red tape, but which are usually laws intended to ensure various aspects of the well being of the individual nations, such as the environment, human rights and even sovereignty. It is true that sometimes in order to protect their own jobs from an angry electorate, politicians will promote inane laws that they might have otherwise voted against. It is also true that sometimes nations impose punitive tariffs for reasons of frustration against imports from other nations.

The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is none of what a trade agreement is supposed to be about. Although it is true that there is usually a degree of secrecy around the provisions of trade agreements, the level of it around the Trans Pacific Partnership is quite something else altogether. Aside from apparently very few politicians except the heads of Government and State that are championing the agreement, being able to see the text, those that are are not allowed to make any notes about it. They are not allowed to tell anyone else about the text of the agreement. And yet these Heads of Government/State are expecting the legislative chambers of Government in their respective nations to accept something that they actually know nothing about.

The New Zealand Government is no exception. Prime Minister John Key’s claim that the Trans Pacific Partnership will not harm Pharmac is about as solid as the ice breaking beneath someone skating on it. The claims by Minister of Trade Tim Groser that the secrecy is necessary is just giving rise to suspicion. If it is so damn good, release the text!

I am quite pro trade in all honesty. I believe it to be an integral part of the global economy. I believe done properly it will lift incomes, provide jobs and create investment opportunities. The key world is properly.

BUT, this is not being done properly. The Trans Pacific Partnership is NOT a Free Trade Agreement. It is NOT even a trade agreement. It is in fact something more approaching economic treason by the Governments of the nations that are involved with the negotiations. No self respecting nation would deny its legislative chamber the right to thoroughly examine the text and debate whether or not it is suitable. So I am quite encouraged by the New Zealand First Members of Parliament, namely the Right Honourable Winston Peters and list Member of Parliament Fletcher Tabuteau for persisting with asking questions of the Government.

But whatever the disinformation spreading around says, this is NOT over yet. Although if the President of the United States and the other Heads of Government/State cannot let their legislative chambers see the text it SHOULD be over. With no prospects of ever becoming reality.

New Zealand corrupting itself

New Zealand’s transparency is something I take great pride in as a New Zealander. To be in the top five most transparent countries, where accountability of elected officials and those in other high positions of responsibility is paramount is no small feat when one considers the contempt for societal norms and those who abide by them that absolute power can induce. So I am sad to read – but not terribly surprised – that the level of corruption in New Zealand is considered to be increasing.

There is a quote about corruption that is as simple as it is true: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A corrupt official is not only not doing their job, but they are potentially very dangerous. Their moral compass is not working. Whatever it takes to achieve their ends they are prepared to do. If it means betraying colleagues, committing criminal offences and sometimes even endangering lives, it will be done.

New Zealand’s transparency is well recognized. Our Government is one of the most stable and accountable in the world. Election results are for the most part full, fair and final. The Official Information Act, a piece of critical legislation governing the accessibility and use of Government held data enables New Zealanders to access data for research, to see what the Government has stored about them and so forth, with fear of harm. In many countries, doing that could get you arrested and charged with treason, or other activities said to be against the State.

But there are some major problems.

Among them is the absence of protection for whistle blowers, people who see corrupt activity for what it is and try to report it to appropriate authorities. The reluctance of Parliament to pass legislation to protect these people and give them confidence that their complaints will be taken seriously is as damning in some respects as the corruption itself. Another problem is the court procedures for charging and trying in a court of law the person/people/business(es)/organization(s) accused of corruption. Again, the whistle blower needs to be confident enough that they will be able to safely testify if required.

A personal concern of mine is that this Government or future Governments might try to undermine covertly the legislative framework that makes the prosecution of corrupt officials possible. Such changes would be slipped in as several legislative changes have been done in New Zealand disguised by passing at the same time as more contentious legislation, which distracts the public attention.

And if they are successfully prosecuted, what does New Zealand law say about corruption as an offence in terms of elected and judicial officials?

For elected officials such as Ministers of the Crown, a sentence not exceeding 14 years can  be imposed. For judicial officials such as Judges, a sentence not exceeding 7 years can be handed down.

In the last 10 years several Members of Parliament have fallen by the wayside for behaviour contrary to the norms with which New Zealand expects its elected officials to conduct themselves. Labour Member of Parliament Taito Philip Field was jailed for several years for getting an immigrant tiler to do work on his home in return for help with his immigration status. Former Minister of Justice in the current Government, Judith Collins was made to resign  after her husbands company was linked to a dinner between Ms Collins and Chinese Government officials. A.C.T. Member of Parliament Donna Awatere Huata went to jail for fraud involving the misuse of public money.

It is not only misbehaving M.P.’s but a growing contempt for transparency of Parliamentary practices. Since National came to office there has been an unprecedented attack on democracy in New Zealand both outside of Parliament and inside. Outside of Parliament I will deal with in a separate post, but internally by 2010 the National-led Government of Prime Minister John Key had already nearly doubled the number of times that the previous Labour-led Government had used Parliamentary urgency to pass legislation in its nine years. It has ignored public feed back completely on a number of Bills that were sent for public submissions – although all Governments can be accused of this, the number of times set by this Government thus far exceeds previous statistics considerably.

It is perhaps becoming a bit rich of New Zealand to call itself the second most transparent place in the world after all.