New Zealand campaign finance laws are broken. This can have huge consequences | Pete McKenzie
The spokesperson for Aotearoa’s Green Party in New Zealand was genuinely surprised. She had called after I informed them that a major donor to their 2020 election campaign subsequently pleaded guilty to animal neglect. The spokesperson said the Greens were unaware of the negligence when they took his money.
They nevertheless refused to donate it. They argued that the Incorporated Societies Act required them to hang on to it. As I found out later, it’s not entirely true: returning the donation, or giving it to an organization like the SPCA, seems possible under their party’s charter.
Days later, I revealed that in 2020, Labor MP Phil Twyford accepted a donation of $ 2,000 from a friend who claimed that the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, was behind the massacre of Christchurch. Twyford also claimed ignorance. He returned the money after being approached by Newsroom.
In both cases, âwe didn’t knowâ seemed quite unsatisfactory. It took me ten minutes to google the names of donors and find out about their backgrounds. So, throughout my recent campaign finance investigation for Newsroom, I couldn’t help but wonder: why were these politicians being so careless?
The answer revolves around a larger truth about Aotearoa’s political system: Politicians are under increasing pressure to raise funds for their campaigns.
It is not necessarily because money is a determining factor in the Aotearoa elections. In electoral races in the 2020 election, the candidate who spent the most money won less than half the time. But it helps. In these races, the average successful campaign still costs $ 15,303. In six out of eight elections since 1999, the biggest spending party has subsequently formed the government.
And, more importantly, politicians think it helps. As Ben Thomas – communications consultant and former Aotearoa National Party member – put it, âAre they going to see a big difference between $ 5 million and $ 4 million, or between $ 3 million and $ 2 million? They certainly think so. I don’t know if this is necessarily true, but politicians definitely think so.
According to Thomas, this produced something akin to an arms race between the country’s political parties. To keep up with your rival parties, politicians redouble their efforts to raise funds, causing a similar response from their opponents.
We can see it in the numbers: the sums spent by political parties increased by 63% between the elections of 1999 and 2020. Danyl McLauchlan, a political commentator for The Spinoff, described it as the “Dream of the Red Queen, from Alice in Wonderlandâ¦ everyone is running to stay put â.
In most cases, according to the experts I spoke to, this increased appetite for donations does not translate into corruption. But it still had huge consequences.
Obviously, it strengthens the political influence of the wealthier Kiwis. Max Rashbrooke, an expert on democracy and inequality at Victoria University of Wellington, explained that many of the donations recently accepted by political parties âare large sums of money in the New Zealand context. They’re big enough to buy influence because they’re big enough to fund big chunks of what political parties do. While this influence does not translate directly into political results, it can restrict the policies that political parties pursue.
As Rashbrooke explained, âif you know that your ability to campaign politically depends on a particular class of people – usually the wealthy – there will be a tendency to come up with policies that advance their interests or do not tip over. the boat “.
It also changes who is successful in politics. Thomas noted that, “If you are a good fundraiser – and there is nothing sinister about it – it will give you a competitive edge in pursuing a listing placement.” Applicants from wealthy families or large companies enjoy a significant advantage over those from different backgrounds.
And finally, if politicians feel pressured into accepting large sums of money, they may be tempted to hide where that money comes from to avoid precisely the kind of embarrassment I have discovered.
During my reporting, I discovered that Aotearoa’s two main parties could legally circumvent campaign finance rules in order to avoid disclosing the sources of hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. This is a significant violation of the spirit of our election laws, which are premised on the idea that Kiwis should know who is giving large donations to our parties and politicians.
Thinking about all this, it’s hard to avoid concluding that our campaign finance laws are fundamentally broken. And until politicians realize that the reason they feel pressured to be money-obsessed is the system they themselves have built, or until voters demand that the system changes, it will stay that way.