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.

National’s economic policy lacking originality


Yesterday National Party leader Simon Bridges released his party’s policy for economic growth should National form a government after the 19 September 2020 General Election.

It is almost as if Mr Bridges is determined not to acknowledge that the out worn out National Party formula of tax cuts for what it sees as middle class New Zealanders simply does not work any more. When economists who generally support more liberalised economics start suggesting that social welfare benefits need to be increased and recognize that the market will suffer from a growing portion of New Zealanders simply not being able to participate in it, that is a warning written in red ink.

National claim to be working for ordinary New Zealanders. They claim that their policies are better than those of a government that is “not delivering”, not keeping promises and whose Ministers of the Crown do no know what they are doing. Whilst no one should be surprised – and indeed this is what an Opposition is meant to do – given the lack of progress National made on socio-economic indicators during its nine years in office, the allegations that a not-quite one term Government is failing to deliver ignores a detailed list of smaller announcements.

But even without cutting taxes, Mr Bridges could free up substantial money without too much effort. I and others have long had questions about the fiscal accountability of the District Health Boards, especially after the Minister of Health David Clark found that an audit of the D.H.B.’s had $1.25 billion of red ink. Mr Clark blamed the previous Government for it, but this incident reminded me of an estimate that D.H.B.’s might cost $750 million per annum to run.

Another thing Mr Bridges could have his Government do is make good on the recommendations of any large scale reviews into the Ministry of Social Development, its form and function. It is well known that the unwieldy ways of the Social Welfare Act and associated pieces of legislation go some way towards creating the toxic relationship that sometimes arises between social welfare providers and the recipients.

There are infrastructure projects which could boost some of New Zealand’s not so wealthy provinces, which Mr Bridges could be looking at. They include a Waste-to-Energy plant that could burn waste, and generate electricity in doing so on the West Coast, an idea that has already been mooted by West Coast business leaders, but shot down by Minister for Conservation Eugenie Sage. Another one, which might be of use in Southland would be a hydrogen plant to support New Zealand’s transition to clean energy, and would create hundreds of jobs designing and building the plant, as well as many more operating it.

And then there is tax legislation itself. The tax code is like a leaky hydroelectric dam, constantly leaking and unable to reach full capacity because of said leaks. Closing the loopholes that makes New Zealand get viewed unfavourably when it comes to money laundering and other organized crimes. As well as tax evasion it would not only improve how the rest of the O.E.C.D. view us, but also bring in extra revenue that we were meant to have had all along, but which leaked through the dam.

So, if we look at what I have suggested and what Mr Bridges suggested in his speech, who has the more original approach to economic growth? And why?

Dear National Party


I understand that you are coming to the end of your first term on the Opposition benches. And that as the largest party in the House you have 56 Members, of which three have just announced their intentions to retire at the end of the 52nd New Zealand Parliament. I understand that your campaign machine is itching to get going and make this Government a one term wonder. I understand it has been a long term on the opposition benches, ruing the way M.M.P. works.

But I have honest doubts about how ready you are to win the election. Winning the election means that in three years you have somehow managed to:

  1. See that neoliberalism is a failure and the neoliberal model either needs a fundamental overhaul or to be rejected entirely
  2. Accept that compassion is a good human quality to have and that not everyone is lucky to have the necessities of life
  3. Understand that climate change or not, the rate of resource consumption around the world is destroying tracts of ecosystem at a rate that will crash humanity in the next 100 years if left unchecked
  4. Accept that certain conservative sacred cows such as harsher penalties and an unfair tax system do not work for many people any more

Except that you have not. At least not honestly. A sea change in politics, especially New Zealand politics, where some commentators think we are 15-20 years behind Europe in our thinking about society, the environment, economy and how they interact, cannot happen in three years.

Seeing you as a father, a Leader of the Opposition, on Facebook and being sure that like the very vast majority of Parliamentarians you genuinely want the best for New Zealand – albeit in a blue tinted way – you will achieve my second point. But for you and National to achieve the other three, your whole outlook is going to need to change. And after two years watching you on the Opposition benches I do not see that change, or any credible evidence it is going to happen.

It is true that Labour are fluffing around on several things, such as housing, justice and economic growth, but that is where it ends. In their time in office, they have made initial moves to address issues that I thought might have waited until the second term. Minister of Defence Ron Mark had big expenditure decisions to make for the Defence Force, and with the exception of the replacement transport aircraft for our old C-130H Hercules, he has pulled them off superbly. The move on oil and gas was always going to come, but I thought it might have waited until their second term, and it is clear that the younger generation of New Zealanders some of whom will vote for the first time this year, want action now.

I can understand that Simon will be disappointed that he is probably not going to get to be Prime Minister. It is the highest honour in New Zealand politics, and an office respected by friends, allies and nations we normally do not have much to do with, alike. But it is true that there is nothing worse than being a first term Leader of the Opposition, because, with two exceptions – ironically both involving Labour Governments – New Zealanders tend to give a first term Government the benefit of the doubt.

So, I am sorry Simon. The coveted office of Prime Minister is most likely not going to be yours when the sun rises on 20 September 2020. Labour will have done enough by the end of this term to justify a second one in office, because after all, the old saying goes

“Opposition’s do not win elections; Government’s lose them”.

The racers are marshalling: New Zealand readies for Election 2020


2020 is not event two weeks old, and our Parliamentary representatives are either still on holiday or in the office planning the year ahead, but already some political certainties are playing out across the country. The most notable and most obvious one plays out every three years and is commonly known as the General Election.

The date has not been set yet, but possibly the first election debate this year will be over whether Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will set a date early in the proceedings as her predecessors former Prime Ministers John Key and Bill English did. Both set dates fairly early in the third year of the terms they were Prime Minister in.

The smaller parties are not waiting for a date to be set. In the last year a bracket of new parties have sprung up around former candidates, such as the Sustainable Party, which is led by Vernon Tava. In the case of the Prosperity Party obscure individuals who might have what it takes to be a genuine candidate. They have released policy platforms that are surprisingly in depth, almost like they expect to sail straight into government.

In the last few election cycles I would have been able to tell you months in advance who I would be voting for. But in 2020 I am now coming into my second year of not having a clue who I support any more. Whilst the minor parties look interesting, a number of questions arise including, but not limited to:

  1. How realistic are they about their election prospects
  2. What work have they done on establishing their own functions, party constitution and compliance with the Electoral Finance Act and other relevant legislation
  3. Can they identify their values

I also have questions of the parties in Parliament, which I will mention briefly shortly. Before that I want to run a quick ruler over the five Parliament parties, in terms of challenges facing them:

National: The largest party in Parliament has been doing better in the polls of late. However its leader Simon Bridges has been very quiet on the subject of the bush fires, and it is well known that National wants to amend the zero carbon legislation. National are also not saying much about the change in public mood over harsher criminal sentencing. It has a potentially damaging liability in failing to ascertain the truthfulness of M.P. Jian Yang about his links to the Chinese Communist Party.

Labour: Has done well off Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s image as warm and compassionate. It has not done so well off the delivery of policy, particularly in housing, social welfare and justice. Certain Ministers have become a liability and several others are at risk of joining them. It has the potential to pick up more seats, particularly if National do not lift their game on climate change and the environment.

Greens: After almost single handedly blowing themselves to bits in 2017 with Metiria Turei’s admission of misusing benefits, the Greens have rebuilt themselves remarkably well. The elevation of Marama Davidson to the co-leadership does not seem to have harmed them as much as I thought it would. Their primary challenges will be accepting that climate change is going to have to be balanced with the economy; accepting that a whole new infrastructure genre in terms of public works is going to be necessary and understanding that there will always be a place for a Defence Force in New Zealand.

New Zealand First: Not having been a party member for the last 2 1/2 years, I cannot so easily comment on internal happenings any more. I will just say that if they are the same as they were when I left, then the party still has an existential crisis that is still excessively reliant on leader Winston Peters pulling another trick out of the bag. It’s policy platform is still the best in Parliament by some distance, but its betrayal over the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is a huge stinking dead rat.

A.C.T.: By far and away my least favourite party in Parliament, but also the one that proportionate to its size has probably had the biggest impact this year. David Seymour – love him or hate him – has had a big year. His insistence on freedom of speech when criticizing Green M.P. Golriz Ghahraman following the terrorist attacks deservedly drew a lot of criticism from people. That said, it may have done a back handed favour to everyone by shining a light into a not well understood area regarding when free speech becomes hate speech. Substantially more to his credit, he also successfully got through Parliament the controversial End of Life Choices Bill regarding euthanasia.

So, the questions I have for the big parties as you take your places along side the smaller parties in the election race of 2020 are:

  1. Would you be willing to recognize market economics are not working in New Zealand? If not why not?
  2. The constitutional framework of New Zealand has been more overtly challenged in the last few years. What are your thoughts on possibly having to adopt a formal constitution?
  3. What steps are you taking to ensure all donations are properly accounted for under the Electoral Finance Act?

Alternatives to road transport dip out – again – in National transport document


National is proposing to remove fuel taxes if it is elected to office in 2020. And then effectively reinstate them as road user charges. Which to the ordinary New Zealander on the road means one thing only: we still pay for it – just under another name.

National spokesperson for Transport, Chris Bishop announced the new proposal in National’s newly released transport discussion document.

In fairness, Mr Bishop may have a point about fairness of payment methods. A less efficient vehicle might use more fuel per kilometre than a newer vehicle, especially if it is a hybrid, which is designed for low petrol use or an electric car. His solution to introduce road user charges intend to ensure that the kilometres a vehicle drives will determine how much in the way of road user charges a driver has to pay.

How will the road user charges be administered. My father owns a 1995 Toyota Surf that runs on diesel. He has to pay new charges every 10,000 kilometres. Is that an appropriate frequency in terms of kilometres travelled to pay new charges? How would this be administered to petroleum driven cars and after how many thousands of kilometres would new charges have to be paid for?

But the basic fundamental National Party paranoia about “tax”, “taxes” and “taxation” and the desperation to redress need to find replacement funding to cover what would be lost from scrapping the “tax” is at the heart of the subject – if you believe Stuff. What Stuff ignore though is perhaps not so much the fact that National is playing games with the type of funding mechanism that they use to fund roading, as it is that railways, the merchant marine and public transport once again seem to dip out in the discussion document. Perhaps – which would be legitimate for a discussion document, they are credibly asking what the funding priorities should be in these areas, in which case credit to them. But if after an election they win National choose to let these areas slip and slide away, it will be to New Zealand’s detriment.

National also appear to be playing a game of two islands. The North Island comes up in terms of funding announcements, but the South Island often dips out. Neither Christchurch, nor Dunedin seem to rate mentions in terms of funding or what National thinks it might do – or not do. There are several things that could be done, not least:

  • Making Otira tunnel safe for all trains to transit through again without the risk of coal dust causing an explosion and/or fire.
  • Using the South Island Main Trunk Line more for freight, especially through the Kaikoura area where some trucks are simply not made for those roads
  • Introduce a Lyttelton to Wellington/Lyttleton to Port Chalmers ferry service that could take freight and passengers if railways are not efficient enough

This is not to say National’s discussion document is a waste of time. I welcome it and I hope that constructive discussion is generated by it – even if I don’t want a National Party victory.