New developments have emerged this morning around donations to the New Zealand First Foundation. So, what do they show, and will it matter?
What’s all this then?
It was revealed by Radio NZ this morning that donations made to the NZ First Foundation came from some of New Zealand’s wealthiest and most powerful people. That included companies controlled by Sir Graeme Hart, with two donations of $14,995 being made on the same day. Three seperate donations totalling $36,000 were also made by entities connected to the Van Den Brink family, which has an estimated net worth of $110 million. Similar individual donations, which cumulatively totalled up to more than $15,000, were also made by entities linked to major apartment developer Conrad Properties.
It follows long investigations into the matter by both Radio NZ, and Stuff journalist Matt Shand.
That $15,000 is a weirdly specific number to note.
Yes, it’s the figure at which the identities of donors must be declared to the Electoral Commission. That applies to cumulative donations made within a year of each other as well. Radio NZ reports that they have seen records which show “the Foundation received 12 payments of $15,000 in the two years between April 2017 and May 2019 – one cent under the declaration threshold.”
So has anyone been breaking the law?
We are not suggesting that any of these donors have broken the law, and in fact it would seem clear that the donors have made every effort to comply with electoral law. We are also not suggesting that they were motivated to donate such an amount by a desire for secrecy.
If there is any incorrect handling of donations in this case, the legal onus would be on the party secretary of NZ First to correct the mistake. Under electoral law, breaches are the responsibility of individual office holders within the party, rather than the party as an entity.
But hang on, the donations weren’t made to the party itself. Remind me what the NZ First Foundation is?
The two entities are not the same thing. The NZ First Foundation has however paid for campaign expenses incurred by the NZ First Party. Previous reporting on the matter revealed internal documents that showed the foundation “was set up to seek donors who would be offered a ‘tiered donation structure with benefits adhering to each tier'”. There are various figures connected to both entities – for example the two founding trustees of the foundation are former NZ First MP Doug Woolerton and Winston Peters’ lawyer Brian Henry.
Don’t National have one of these foundations as well?
Yes, but the crucial difference is that donations to the National Foundation are treated by the party as being exactly the same as donations to the party itself, and declared accordingly. The Electoral Commission is currently investigating how NZ First and the NZ First Foundation handled donations. They may or may not choose to then refer it to the Serious Fraud Office.
Does any of this matter politically?
It will certainly be the focus of a lot of political commentary in the coming days. While National have its own ongoing issues with donations being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office (disclaimer – nobody within National has been charged over this matter) the latest revelations could blunt the attacks made between the two parties. If wrongdoing in the case of the NZ First Foundation is conclusively demonstrated, it could also have implications for the wider stability of the government.
ACT leader David Seymour has come out of the blocks quickly, calling on the government to clarify the laws around multiple donations being made. “To allow such practices is to leave the legal possibility of an individual buying additional influence in New Zealand politics and the public being none the wiser. An open and transparent government must put a stop to this urgently.”