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A flurry of questions attend the Serious Fraud Office’s announcement it is charging four people in relation to donations, and the answers could have huge implications in election year, writes Andrew Geddis

A flurry of questions attend the Serious Fraud Office’s announcement it is charging four people in relation to donations, and the answers could have huge implications in election year, writes Andrew Geddis
Jami-Lee Ross & Simon Bridges in Parliament during happier times. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

By Andrew Geddis*

The announcement by the Serious Fraud Office that it has filed criminal charges against four people “in relation to donations paid into a National Party electorate bank account” generated a fair bit of political heat, but not all that much light.

First of all, we don’t know what specific charges have been filed, nor against whom. The SFO won’t say, because when the accused appear in court on February 25 they may well seek name suppression. Naming them before they get the chance to do so would render such an application moot, and the SFO doesn’t really want to do the court’s job for it.

We do know that neither the National Party leader, Simon Bridges, nor its secretary, Greg Hamilton, have been charged as they have told us so. Hearing that didn’t surprise me, as I intimated when Jami-Lee Ross first raised his allegations in relation to this matter.

For Bridges to be charged, he pretty much would have to had explicitly told donors something like, “I want you to give my party this money in this illegal way.” Now, much as I know that plenty of inner-city, kombucha drinking liberal types like to hate on our Simon, no political party leader would be that stupid. Not even Simon Bridges.

And the National Party secretary’s legal responsibility really amounts to little more than receiving and recording donations, before passing on limited information about those donations to the Electoral Commission. When doing so, he’s entitled to simply rely on what he’s told by donors to the party without having to try and independently verify that it is the truth. Having met those minimal requirements under the law, he’s then in the clear.

Beyond saying the above regarding who hasn’t been charged with what, further speculation as to who then is left on the potential hook could result in defamation lawsuits – as well as being very unfair to innocent parties. And so there I shall forbear to tread.

Indeed, it should be noted that we don’t even know for certain that the charges filed relate to some alleged wrongdoing with how the donations in question were made to the National Party and not some unrelated matters that the SFO stumbled across while investigating them. Because, as Lester Freemon reminds us, “you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f**k it is going to take you.”

That being said, assuming that the charges do indeed relate in some way to the manner in which these donations were made, it represents the first time there have been charges laid against anyone in relation to the funding of a political party in New Zealand. This fact in itself marks the charges as a significant development. Sure, it isn’t anything like $90,000 hidden in a pie crust box in a congressman’s freezer, but it does warn us that we shouldn’t assume our shiny least corrupt country” badge protects us from the ills that infect other political systems.

Furthermore, the fact no charges may have been laid against them does not necessarily mean that Bridges and the National Party can claim to be completely blameless in this matter. Jami-Lee Ross’s original allegation was that Bridges wanted to have the $100,000 donation paid over to the party in a way that didn’t require disclosure (assumedly to avoid questions about why National was receiving such largesse from the donors concerned).

Sure, that doesn’t mean he meant that the law should be broken; indeed, he most probably didn’t want it to be. There are entirely legal ways that this avoidance of disclosure could have occurred. But it is this desire on the part of political parties and donors alike to avoid the public gazing upon their relationship that ultimately drives stratagems like bundling together individual donations below the legal threshold for disclosure, which easily risk going from tricky-but-legal to breaching of the law.

More generally, the whole affair also demonstrates that our current level of donation disclosure is way too high. Allowing donations to political parties of $15,000 without disclosure allows bundling up of serious amounts of money that the public never gets to see or hear about. That figure came about as the result of a political compromise between Labour and National back in 2010. It now has to be reduced, so that more can be seen about where political parties get their funding from.

But changing that law is for the medium-term future. What of the immediate impact on this year’s election contest? I think that really depends on who has been charged with what, and the degree of culpability that the public assigns to National for being associated with this sort of allegedly unlawful behaviour. Will National be seen as complicit in the alleged offending, or a victim of it?

Also, we should remember that the New Zealand First Foundation is still being investigated by the Electoral Commission regarding how it receives money and its relationship with the New Zealand First Party. If some wrongdoing were to be found there and the matter referred on to the police, will that then cause the public to see this as a case of a plague on all your houses?

So, a lot more questions remain to be answered regarding the SFO’s actions. And those answers may in turn raise a bunch more questions for the National Party, the 2020 election and our political system generally.

*Andrew Geddis is a Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Otago. This article first appeared on The Spinoff here and is used with permission.

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Jami-Lee Ross must've found a police stash of handed in guns ... 'cos he's shot himself in the foot ... whatever happens or not to Bridges & the Gnats , Ross got what he deserved , hoisted with his own petard ....

Ross ' who was he?
But Bridges - he fails the pub test, period.

Will thick as National voters care?

The phone call transcript combined with JLR's testimony in court (if he's in there) would be very interesting for National, I'd bet.

Transcript for leisure reading again:

Ross: ...Now there's no catch or anything to it. You may recall at the dinner they did discuss candidacy, and another Chinese candidate.

Bridges: Two MPs, yeah.

Ross: Colin Zhang? The younger one, he's put his name in for Candidates' College and so I assume he'll get through and we'll make some decisions as a Party further down the track as to what we want to do with candidates.

Bridges: I mean, it's like all these things, it's bloody hard. You've only got so much space. Depends where we're polling, you know? All that sort of thing… two Chinese would be nice, but would it be one Chinese or one Filipino? What do we do?

Ross: Two Chinese would be more valuable than two Indians, I have to say.

Bridges: Which is what we've got at the moment, right? Your problem there is you end up in a s...fight because you've got a list MP – you've got two list MPs – it's a pretty mercenary cull – sitting MPs, all that s.... Then you've got the issue of, you could end up getting rinsed with list MPs and bringing in some of those new ones, and if you do that you're just filling up your lists even further. You've got to sort of look after… I mean I reckon there's two or three of our MPs, not talking about our obvious ones like Finlayson or Carter, the rest you just want to go. Like Maureen Pugh is useless.


Yes ironical true justice for dodgy Jami and his dodgy recordings. He has cooked his own goose, what will he do in future after his spell in the gaol


Donations are one issue. How about clearing the CCP sympathisers out of political influence and the presumptive CCP stooges out of our political system? It would mean Bridges would have to organise his future trips to China some other way, and maybe Key would find his dubious cultivation (in 'a personal capacity') of Xi Jinping less easy to smile away. Labour too might take a hard look at its own fellow-travellers. And then we'd know our elected politicians actually put this country and our democracy above craven servility and self-seeking elsewhere.

Yep. Times have changed, thinking should too.
China has not progressed the way folk thought it would, you know the wealthier they get the more charming and "enlightened" they'd become.

I think the choice of ethnic chinese representatives is important. Ethnic chinese population is quite diverse in NZ, as pointed out by Prof Brady. You don't have to have someone who came from Mainland China to represent the entire ethnicity in this democracy. Ethinc chinese immigrants from hong kong, taiwan, singapore etc. can do the work, 2nd and 3rd gen kiwi chinese can do the work too.

National won't be the only guilty party, the other parties won't want to attract attention.

To develop GBH’s theory, mix deep red with deep blue & some black & you end up with Deep Purple & smoke on the water. The real point is though, that each and every member of our parliament is a lawmaker, similarly that’s exactly what they often call members of congress in the USA. So they create a law and immediately set about defeating it themselves. It is double hypocrisy and it sucks!

Mate in Labour party told me they would have a meeting with Chinese in AKL , afterwards they would shower them with money. So much it all got a bit embarrassing.

Its not to say Bridges etal can't be charged later if additional evidence comes to hand, this is simply the prima facie phase and theres plenty of time for something white and boney to tumble out of storage...

Politics has been a dirty game for most of the 60 something years I can remember, however, today we live in a very transparent world. Which is a good thing right?

Aye, as transparent as Scotch mist.

Islay Mist , 17 y.o. single malt ?

... aye Jimmy ... let's gie intae it !

Och GBH. Yer oot yer face. The Lagavulin!

Also known as liquid kippers.

You gotta look at what's happened, not what's been reported as happened.

As John Key suggested, essentially those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear. Though in fairness he was referring to transparency of the hoi polloi's affairs, not those of the folk in charge.

Who cares its just money as donations its the least of our problems.

... it does seem to be a distraction from the real business at hand : the election .... policies ... spending our money for us ....

Spoken like someone who has never lived in deeply corrupt countries.

So, National is the party of law and order. How does this sit well?

Participation & compliance with process?.
Remember there is lawyers, court procedure and judges to work through.

It was the so that gave you away.

Granted. Due process to prevail. The Nats and SFO have some recent history though- Collins book will be a good read.

... I hardly think that the Crusher will write a must read tome , a no holds barred knock em down drag em out political thriller until after she leaves parliament ...

I think Key might have managed to get the best donation of all, with the generous purchase of his house by Chinese investor.

'National leader Simon Bridges rules out post-election deal with New Zealand First'...
Simon gonna be rolled soon ?

... wow ... that's big news .... I expect that Taxcinda will do a deal with NZF before the election , to hand them a seat in Northland ( where the recently announced roads project is dominated ... funny , that ) ... else , she may lose NZF from parliament ....

the deal might be another baby and maternity leave so he can be PM for six months

Hari Kari. John Key he certainly ain’t & if John Key couldn’t do it, Bridges won’t bring National back into power in its own right. Oh, he might not know National hasn’t got a viable coalition partner. Bridges has just handed free of charge all the strategy Labour needs next election. Over ambitious & naive to take the job in the first place I would suggest.

. . so , Winnie is no longer able to play the Kingmaker role .... just a humble old queen , first lady in Labour .... up the duff without a paddle ...

Nat Co. - no surprises there. Pity that none can work in perfect stealth mode like JK. The rest are just a bit to obvious on their greed pattern.