In introducing a swift ‘effective ban’ on foreign donations to political parties, the justice minister basically said that he’d had enough of the select committee’s shit. Understandable, but not good enough, writes Andrew Geddis.
Back in August, I wrote a piece on this site titled “so you want to hack New Zealand’s democracy?”, in which I gave any aspiring malign actor with cash to burn my free and frank advice on how best to infiltrate and influence our electoral processes.
You’re welcome, New Zealand. No need for a medal – it’s just what I do.
Now it seems like the government has treated that piece much like the more dissolute among my students regard my finely crafted, erudite public law lectures on New Zealand’s constitution. It has skipped over the interesting but hard stuff, identified a couple of easy-to-grasp points, and then done the minimum necessary with those to obtain a passing grade.
I speak, of course, of the Electoral Amendment Bill No 2, which the justice minister, Andrew Little, surprise dropped yesterday on the body politic like he’s a wannabe parliamentary Beyoncé before ushering it into law overnight like a wannabe Xandra.
This bill is touted as “send[ing] a clear signal that only those who are part of New Zealand’s democracy, and who live in, or have a strong connection to, this country, should participate in our electoral system.” Yet all it really does on that score is lower the amount that an overseas person can give to a candidate or party from $1500 to $50, while requiring political party secretaries and candidates to take a harder look at any donations they ought to suspect are coming from an overseas source.
Unlimited donations to a party or candidate from a New Zealand company or an unincorporated body based in New Zealand are still allowed, even if that company is owned by an overseas person or the body has overseas members. Meaning that, for instance, the Inner Mongolia Rider Horse Industry (NZ) Ltd’s $150,000 donation to National will remain completely legal even as its owner, Mr Lang Lin, is restricted to giving only $50 directly to the party.
Let’s then imagine how such a donation might play out under the new law in a little one act play I shall call “Legal Fictions Are A Wonderful Thing”:
Scene: A dimly lit, smoke filled backroom.
Dramatis personae: The Inner Mongolian Rider Horse Industry NZ (IMRHINZ); the National Party Secretary (NPS)
IMRHINZ: “Here’s a check for $150,000.”
NPS: “That’s wonderfully generous of you! However, I am obligated to take all reasonable steps in the circumstances to ascertain whether this money is from you or from your sole shareholder, Mr Lang Lin.”
IMRHINZ: “It is from me, paid out of my company funds.”
NPS: “Great! As you are allowed to donate to the party, and I have no reason to suspect it is not *you* that is doing so … thanks again!”
In fairness, Andrew Little doesn’t claim that this bill is intended to deal with all issues of overseas influence in our elections. As his press release on the issue notes, “Further policy work in this area is ongoing”.
However, Jami-Lee Ross – who seems to have had something of a road to Damascus experience in relation to political donations – has tweeted out the hard truth about this issue: “The only way to effectively ban foreigners from influencing our politics is to restrict who can make donations to people that are entitled to vote.”
That’s not a ridiculous position to take. It is, for instance, what Canada does. But it does involve removing a lot of money that parties currently get from companies and groups like unions for their operations. And if that money gets removed, then where does it come from instead?
Are New Zealanders prepared to have (more) taxpayer funds go towards funding the activities of political parties? Because if not, then you can’t really fix the problem.
So much for the largely benign, albeit pretty ineffectual, content of this particular bill. What is somewhat concerning, however, is how it was ushered through the House and into law.
Note that yesterday morning was the first time the public (and the opposition) even saw this legislation. Having introduced the bill into the House, the government then overnight progressed it through all stages of the legislative process under urgency. That means that there was no opportunity for select committee scrutiny, and no chance for the public to submit their views on the bill.
Why the need for such speed? After all, the next election isn’t for another 11 months or so. And there still are three weeks left in this parliamentary year, even if it is somehow essential that the law be in place by January 1.
Well, Andrew Little’s opening speech in the first reading debate strongly hinted at why he thought things had to be moved along with haste. Noting that the Justice Committee has been sitting on its Inquiry into the 2017 Election (which also is examining the issue of potential foreign interference in elections) for nearly 18 months, he basically said that he’d had enough of its shit and so was cutting them out of the loop.
There may be something to that frustration. It’s notable, for instance, that the just passed Referendums Framework Bill was recalled from the Justice Committee without any report being made. So, it would seem that the 4–4 split between government and opposition members of that body has been a recipe for gridlock.
However, as the always astute and wise-beyond-his-years Henry Cooke notes, “This is good politics for Little, but is an appalling way to make law. A bad select committee does not excuse running roughshod over parliament.”
To which I say, damn right. What with the truncated select committee process for the Terrorism Suppression (Control Orders) Bill, and now the done-in-a-day approach to this law, Andrew Little is starting to betray a worrying habit. It would be good if he could break it.