Law restricting party donations draws political flak

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Auckland University legal academic Tim Kuhner (University Photo)

Radio New Zealand, Wellington, July 29, 2022

Opposition parties are crying foul over a donations law change, while the government is considering a separate fix to prevent big foreign funders from secretly influencing elections.

Electoral donations laws have been under scrutiny following the end of the New Zealand First Foundation court case, and the start of the case of the Labour-National donation.

Each case raises different concerns about New Zealand’s current electoral donations laws.

Auckland University legal academic Tim Kuhner told Morning Report that the cases were showing electoral laws were unfit for purpose and in need of an overhaul.

Democratic integrity

“If we are talking about political representation, political accountability, transparency and so on – democratic integrity – then no, the laws are not fit for purpose,” he said.

Meanwhile, the government is pushing ahead with a short-term law that it wants to be approved before next year’s election and is also working on a review of electoral laws that aims for more permanent change before the 2026 vote.

Such reviews are common after general elections but have a low track record of leading to widespread changes.

Experts also want a fix to a glaring problem exposed by the New Zealand First Foundation case to be slipped into the bill currently going through Parliament. The government has been seeking advice on how it could do that but has not yet confirmed its approach.

Opposition questions transparency

The National and ACT parties are pushing back after the government introduced its Electoral Amendment Bill, which makes changes to the way donations are made, and disclosure statements and temporarily expand access to overseas voters. Any organisation or person donating $5000 (reduced from $15,000) or more should make a public declaration.

ACT’s leader David Seymour argued that the changes will unfairly benefit Labour and the Green Party compared to ACT and National and that they damage the ability of the two parties to engage with the public. He feared that the donations will reduce by about $1.2 million if the law is changed. He said that the ACT Party would have lost more than Labour and Greens combined.

“There is no justification for these changes other than the fact that they will advantage two political parties over two others. ACT has made it clear to all donors that their money cannot buy his party’s policies,” he said.

Mr Seymour said that people donate money to ACT because they like the Party.

Mr Kuhner dismissed Mr Seymour’s criticisms, saying that the change would not influence the amount donated by people but that donors should be transparent.

“We have to watch out for political self-dealing, but I don’t think that is going on here. The proposed reforms just increase transparency. Labour is not looking to ban any particular donations, they’re not even looking to limit donations, they’re just looking to help restore public confidence by increasing disclosure.”

Greens want lower thresholds

The Green Party said it was supporting the Bill, saying that it wanted to “get big money and their influence right out of politics.”

“We do not share that concern that it will put people off because if people want to donate they absolutely can – and they can stand on the values of why they are donating. We want the threshold to be as low as possible without making the administrative burden on parties unworkable – calling for a lower threshold of $1000,” Co-Leader Marama Davidson said.

But the National Party’s Justice Spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said that the solution being put forward did not deal with the concerns raised by the court cases.

“The Minister is pointing to a problem and then introducing a bill that deals with other matters as if it is some kind of solution to the problem. The broad purpose of it is to make it more difficult for political parties to raise funds,” he said.

He said that the lower threshold would greatly increase the work of parties’ volunteers in administrating smaller amounts of funding and, with less funding coming in there would be an incentive to move towards a taxpayer-funded model.

National Party Leader Christopher Luxon was also frustrated, but for a different reason.

“There is a broader conversation going on about electoral law in general and electoral law reforms, but we have this sort of financing piece that sort of is separate, trying to be jammed through before the election. We will have it all considered as a part of the legislation,” he said.

The above Report and pictures have been published under a special agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

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