The most refreshing aspect of the Independent Electoral Review report into our electoral system are the proposed changes to electoral donations.

Review chair Deborah Hart says they want “a contest of ideas, not a contest of cash”. Indeed.

Panel chairwoman Deborah Hart said many submitters were uneasy about the size of political donations and the idea donors might be buying influence.
Under the panel’s recommendations the maximum that could be donated to a party and candidate would be $30,000.
Hart disagreed that was a small amount in contrast to the size of donations allowed at present.
“For most New Zealanders they would think that’s a lot of money … and really people are saying they want a contest of ideas, not a contest of cash.”

One could point to many examples of abuses under the current system with former cabinet minister Stuart Nash being just the latest example. Nash received substantial election campaign funding from the forestry sector and this was one of the sectors for which he was responsible.

Public records show just how much Nash has received from the timber sector over the last three elections. In 2020, he declared $19,503 from such parties, in 2017 it was $5000, and in 2014 he declared $31,000.

Nash resigned after he was caught out breaching the cabinet manual by reporting back to his big donors after cabinet meetings giving them insider reports.

Nash wasn’t working for the people – he was working for his donors.

There are numerous other examples where both National and Labour have used sneaky, underhand ways to hide the name of their big donors. Using trusts to collect donations and declaring only the trust donation or using auctions and declaring only the total raised from the auction. Former cabinet minister and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff used this subterfuge to declare a $366,000 auction declaration to an election campaign which did not specify individual donations or purchases. It included the sale at an auction of a book for $150,000.

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Former Christchurch mayor Lianne Dalziel used a similar subterfuge – an auction – to hide large donations to two mayoral campaigns, In some cases donors paid thousands of dollars for bottles of wine but Dalziel failed to declare their names as required under electoral law.

In other cases MPs have held “art auctions” where the artists are named as the donors rather than the wealthy donors who buy the art works.

We have a system where big donors want to remain anonymous and politicians will go out of their way to oblige.

Under the proposed changes only registered voters would be able to donate to political parties and these would be capped at $30,000 for any one party and its candidates. And the threshold for disclosing names would drop from $15,000 to $1000. Gone would be donations from companies, trusts, unions or foreign nationals. It won’t stop groups like the Exclusive Brethren raising $1,000,000 for a right wing party then splitting it into 33 individual donations from 10 named members of the church who enrol as voters. More work is needed and ultimately we must end donations to political parties and candidates altogether in favour of modest funding for candidates to promote their policies.

So the electoral review proposals aren’t perfect – they still tilt the field towards the big end of town – but they are a significant step forward.

The other proposals to lower the voting age to 16 and drop the threshold from 5% to 3.5% would also be a good steps but are unlikely to get parliamentary support however because Labour and National will form a grand coalition to defeat them.

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