Keeping their noses clean

Winston Peters
Winston Peters
It seems you can teach an old dog new tricks.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters this week turned to social media, using Facebook to bypass the media so as to deliver undiluted his account of what the relationship is between the political party he founded in 1993 and the New Zealand First Foundation which, well, that’s for the authorities to decide exactly what it does.

While Press Gallery journalists can attest that Mr Peters can be very difficult to find when he does not wish to be found, there is only so long that he can avoid the questions of the media, the general public, and quite possibly the Serious Fraud Office.

On Monday, the SFO, already with its hands full dealing with complaints about National Party funding arrangements which have resulted in four people facing charges (but not the party itself), had the Electoral Commission file on the New Zealand First Foundation passed on to it by the police for further investigation.

It may well be that things turn out exactly as Mr Peters says they will; that there was never any wrongdoing and the party will be exonerated.

Time will tell, although it is likely — unfortunately so — that both these sagas will drag on through the election campaign and beyond.

While it is difficult to paint a rosy picture of a situation where two of the country’s major political parties have found themselves under investigation, there is something heartening about this.

Politicians like to quote Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which regularly places New Zealand high in its rankings of the least corrupt countries in the world.

It is because investigations such as the ones the SFO have undertaken are permitted, because public scrutiny of political donations is expected and the highest amounts are disclosed publicly, because political parties are obliged to disclose their expenses, that New Zealand can maintain this reputation.

But that does not mean that all is well.

The very fact that there is a dollar level below which donations to political parties can be made anonymously encourages speculation that the limits may being pushed by both donors and parties.

The Electoral Act was written in the days of cheques rather than electronic funds transfer, and no matter how may times it has been amended it has struggled to keep pace with digital electioneering — its antiquated regime governing election advertising is but one example of its many deficiencies.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has suggested a full independent look at political donation laws, which would be a beginning but only a beginning.

Every general election is subject to a subsequent select committee inquiry, but the assessment of the 2017 election was rendered somewhat farcical by constant delays and wholesale politicisation of the process.

A worthy piece of news well buried by this week’s kerfuffle was the appointment of Amokura Kawharu as the next president of the Law Commission.

Justice Minister Andrew Little, who assigns projects to what is an independent crown entity, might consider electoral law as something the commission, or another equally as high-powered independent legal committee, could profitably examine.

This election is already tainted with allegations of wrongdoing before the campaign officially begins, no matter how many Facebook transparency agreements political parties sign up to.

To better serve the voters they seek to represent, politicians need to rise above their partisan divide and work towards a suite of electoral laws for 2023.

Comments

We also need to keep in mind Labour's 2017 art auctions which enabled funders to keep their identities secret. Labour even formed part of a discussion by the US Congress for their indirect funding activities.