Some quick fixes are being considered for our system of political donations before the next election, so it’s clearer who is giving money to our politicians, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.
A temporary fix to one of the weak points in New Zealand’s democratic armour. The government quietly unveiled a series of proposals on Friday to overhaul the law covering political donations. Wealthy individuals, corporations and unions can donate unlimited amounts of money to political parties in New Zealand. Those parties are then governed by restrictions on how much advertising they can buy, but that’s about it. “We have, by international standards, pretty lax controls,” says University of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis.
One of the few current rules is that party donations above $15,000 need to be disclosed to the electoral commission. Despite that, New Zealand First, Labour and National have all faced police investigations in recent years after it appeared donors tried to get around the disclosure requirement. Geddis spoke with The Bulletin about what’s now being proposed.
It’s a small tinkering of the rules. The thing about electoral financing is that it’s not a particularly exciting or glamorous part of politics, until it is. The countries that have strict rules on donations—many of them are New Zealand’s friends—only got them after abuse and scandal. New Zealand has never had that moment of outrage, and with new rules, that moment might never come. The justice ministry is now proposing to lower the disclosure threshold for parties to $1,500, increase the frequency of public reporting, disclose more about in-kind donations and possibly ban anonymous money in politics. That’s right, a party can accept money anonymously, not having any idea who gave it to them. Sam Sachdeva from Newsroom has also looked at how recent police investigations could have led to the proposed fix.
Geddis explains how the current rules were adopted a decade ago after a Labour-led overhaul of electoral financing in 2007 was poorly handled.
“The rules we’ve got in place at the moment came about through a political compromise that was reached because of the very poor process following how the earlier rules were brought in. Like many compromises, they represent the minimum that everyone was willing to accept”, he said. “It’s the minimum level of control necessary that the parties think need to be in place to placate the public.”
A larger review of the country’s electoral laws is coming. Justice minister Kris Faafoi announced earlier this year that the government is launching a sweeping review of New Zealand’s democracy, which includes the voting age, Parliament’s three-year term and some of the process within the MMP system—the larger voting system and Māori seats aren’t up for review. As RNZ reports, those larger changes won’t be ready before a possible 2026 election. Smaller fixes to donation transparency are a first step, but more significant changes could be included in the larger review, according to Geddis. Many countries that have limits on donations, based on the idea that wealth shouldn’t buy access to politicians, have brought in public funding of political parties. That idea isn’t currently on the radar, but it could be part of a wider review of the country’s democracy, he said.
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