Peter Dunne says the chance of having transparent election campaign funding is close to zero because the politicians who call for it really don't want it, and neither do 'smug career officials'

Peter Dunne says the chance of having transparent election campaign funding is close to zero because the politicians who call for it really don't want it, and neither do 'smug career officials'

By Peter Dunne*

A perennial undercurrent of recent general election campaigns has been the issue of party fundraising.

With the emerging controversies this year over the shadowy role of the New Zealand First Foundation and the Serious Fraud Office’s decision to prosecute four individuals over the way in which a since returned donation to the National Party was accounted for, this year’s election campaign promises to be no different.

The Electoral Act contains a number of very specific provisions about how political parties and candidates are to account for the funds they raise, and the Electoral Commission has played a role in policing those. However, their specificity and the petty nature of many of the requirements has led parties and candidates over the years to explore various imaginative ways of getting around them or minimising their impact.

At the same time, parliamentary parties have similarly sought to maximise their electioneering opportunities from their Parliamentary funding to supplement whatever funds they raised externally. And they have become equally inventive and skilled in this regard. Over the latest summer, for example, Labour MPs ran billboards sporting large smiling photos of themselves promoting a banal and obvious message to drive safely over the holidays. This had nothing to do with road safety at all, but everything to do with promotion of the MPs concerned at the start of election year, and all within the rules at the taxpayers’ expense. National MPs have been no less diligent – the glossy electorate newsletters featuring a series of awkwardly staged photographs, and even more trite questionnaires “to find out what you think” are just as much about promoting the  MPs they feature, as are the Labour billboards. The implicit notion that through these devices both Labour and National are “communicating” with those they seek to represent is as facile as it is fatuous.

In 2006, after the uproar over Labour’s taxpayer funded “Pledge Card” at the 2005 election the then Auditor-General conducted an investigation into expenditure of public funds by Parliamentary parties and concluded that most parties were spending their public funding improperly. That was ultimately self-defeating. While it led to a further arbitrary tightening of the rules, it also set off a new round of devices being employed by MPs to get around them.

Now I am not arguing against the corny billboards or the trite newsletters, per se – MPs must be able to promote themselves, their activities and their views to their constituents to enable a fair assessment of their worth come election time. But I am saying that the current plethora of Parliamentary and electoral rules are a nonsense that do more to encourage developments like the creation of institutions like the New Zealand First Foundation, or the breaking up of donations into smaller amounts to stay below a legislative threshold, than they do to eliminate them. While the rules may be a bureaucrat’s dream, giving more power than could ever be considered reasonable to petty non-elected officials like those who populate the Electoral Commission, they simply do not work, as current events show.

There is an obvious and simple solution to this that politicians who love preaching personal responsibility for others should be prepared to adopt for themselves. Scrap all the rules regarding the use of their allocated Parliamentary funding by individual MPs and their parties and replace them with a simple requirement for every MP and their party to file an annual audited return of their specific Parliamentary expenditure. The public would quickly prove to be far better monitors of what was reasonable use of public funds by politicians than any set of confusing, ambiguous and often contradictory Parliamentary rules could ever be.

At the same time, all the financing provisions of the Electoral Act could be abolished and replaced with one simple overarching provision: every donation made to a candidate or a political party, whether in kind or cash, from overseas or within New Zealand, whether it be $1 or $1,000,000, should be fully disclosable.  This would place the onus fairly and squarely on the party or candidate to be absolutely transparent about whom and where they were receiving contributions from, while at the same time protecting their freedom of choice and association.

The chances of this happening are close to zero, as no party, however much it might like to lecture others on the subject, would ever submit to that level of transparency.  Nor could the electoral officials and associated academic and legal fusspots who love nit-picking over these issues even tolerate the notion that people other than them could ever be trusted to be accountable in this way. Their whole careers have been built after all on their smug self-belief they know what is best for others.

So, the more the rules are tightened and tinkered with, the more bureaucratic checks that are imposed, the one certainty is the more politicians and political parties will simply engage in even more elaborate ways of getting around them. And the more we should come to expect election years being clouded by the types of funding controversies we are seeing already this year.


*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.

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14 Comments

Actually the four lines in the caption really says it all. Our MPs are lawmakers, just as the counterparts in the American congress are often called. So what we have is our MPs formulating and legislating law, then immediately themselves, setting about defeating that same law. Foul play indeed and giving the bird to the electorate and it sucks.

Whichever way you cut it, donations come with strings attached. Money buys power. Big money buys big power.
The little guy gets screwed by the big end of town. Why are we hearing that its NZs richest people that have been donating to the NZ First Foundation....think about it.

The only way is to abolish donations entirely and replace with taxpayer funding. Yes, the thought of that hurts but its not that much money in the whole scheme of government.
It should also be a requirement that any minister/past minister has to submit to regular audit of their affairs to catch any backdoor corruption.

Totally agree. Use taxpayers money. My preferred solution has voter arrives at polling station, given $10 which he can put in any party box [with some default eg donation to our head of state]; having paid for NZ party politics the voter is then given another $10 to keep for themself and they can vote (bribing voters might increase voter turnout which is a good thing).

Do not worry about the cost (about $40m) because it will be chicken-feed compared to politically decided infrastructure projects, eg Waterview may or may not have been a worthwhile investment but just its margin of error as an investment was more than $40m).

Of course Labour/Nats/NZF wouldn't give the idea the time of day. Their donors don't want to give up control.

Does it matter?...you bet it does.
Its big business that wants the country flooded with highest immigration by far among our peers, so they get cheaper labour costs and higher asset (eg houses) prices. I wonder if the average Joe trying to make their way in the world would vote for that.

Do they get the cheap labour cost though? I dont know how can you call NZ minimum wage cheap.

NZ min wage is not cheap but it can be given to jobs that until recently were not considered trivial. Also phenomena of employees working extra hours unpaid (my local restaurant was proscuted successfully for effectively paying staff under $4 per hour) and the recent death of an immigrant building worker who paid no income tax so ACC wouldn't support his family; the wife complaining he paid agents $30,000 getting his visa.
High-paid immigrants = good (good for them, good for NZ, good for tax receipts)
Low-paid immigrants = bad (corruption, rorts, forces wages lower, penalise honest businesses employing kiwis).

I agree that NZ does not need low paid immigrants in some areas (chefs, retail managers, etc) but it will need them in some other areas (health care (specially aged care), farms, orchards etc). So your formula is overly simplistic. The immigration office does have a plan, but It seems that they execute it so very poorly as the chefs and retail managers continue to dominate the type of immigrants accepted.

It is a fact that some businesses abuse immigrant workers (due to them being desperate to get residency, unaware of their rights, more desperate to keep a job as no benefit will come their way etc). They must be put out of business. But these are predominantly small businesses (mainly in hospitality) with no significant impact on NZ employment (thus wages). It is not as if a low cost takeaway will offer high paying jobs to kiwis if there were no immigrant at all. They would use more family or close down. The big guys like supermarkets, homeware mega shops etc, do not abuse their workers (including immigrants but they do not support their visa applications to the best of my knowledge, rather they employ those who have work visas) to the same extent.

I am an immigrant, but i accept that NZ level of immigration is too high. However, saying labour is cheap in NZ is stretching the truth. I am not sure how immigrants are helping to keep low wages low. They do minimum wage jobs. Minimum wage is set by government. Are you suggesting that there is no such a thing as a minimum wage job? or that the minimum wage must be higher?

I agree that campaigning funding should be paid by the tax payer. I don't however agree that increasing voter turnout by any means is a good thing. Firstly let me state I think having a population that cares about the the election and votes is a good thing. However paying or forcing a person to vote who can't be bothered to vote otherwise is not. They either don't know who to vote for or don't care and will not have gone to the effort of finding anything out about who they are voting for. So they will at best vote at random, or probably for the major party because they heard the name. That dilutes the votes of the people who actually care about the outcome of the election.

Taxpayer funding? I'm not sure why taxpayers should underwrite political parties if their own members don't believe enough in their message to chip in. At least under the current structures, parties are somewhat accountable to your members - see the outcries from NZF members when their governance goes rogue. Under a taxpayer model, they no longer have to be accountable to any one.

I'd feel a lot better about this sort of thing being taxpayer funded if there were ever any consequences for the party that can't seem to fill out donation returns correctly and has an elaborate structure in place to defeat transparency, yet accuses everyone else of being bought and paid for. Until that happens, keep them away from the taxpayer tit, please.

Go to any department store and the most expensive items are bought by those who have money. Same with political parties: money wins so a handful of foreigners can have an undue influence and they make donations for the best for their own country not ours. The poor are squeezed out.
If funded as I propose by the choice of each and every NZ adult who is on the electoral register and sufficiently motivated to go to a polling station then we would stop the disproportionate influence of wealth. Taxpayer expense would be more than saved by better political decisions.

Counterpoint: The ACT party vote, despite being one of the biggest money spenders in each election on a per seat basis, barely registers. They have literally one dude. I know it doesn't quite gel with the 'eat the rich' theory, which is unfortunate. Not sure how much influence that bought them. How would you handle donations in kind from unions? All that free labour and time must be worth something.

You're also assuming everyone in your fantastical scenario will play by the rules when they don't do that now. So what's going to suddenly change to make parties who refuse to fill out the current paperwork suddenly not take additional donations anyway and siphon them somewhere else?

Money is not a guarantee of political success but it sure helps, and if you are a smart you donate to everyone so its not even a gamble, we have two choices either pay for campaigning or pay through laws that aren't in the best interest of the tax payer, I am betting the latter will be much more expensive. But I agree that expenditure of that public money should be accessible to the public.

Glad to see that PD has a thoroughly realistic view of the bureaucrats. More rules equals more minions equals Mo' Munny equals more economic deadweight.

last word(s) could read dead hand.