Should we cap political party donations to just $1000?

Investigative journalist and author Nicky Hager has called for a $1000 limit on how much people can donate to political parties.

It's far below the $35,000 cap suggested by the Greens, the Dirty Politics author saying it's necessary if we want to protect the integrity of our democracy.

At the moment there's no limit.

"It's bonkers," Hager told Newshub Nation on Saturday.

"We're so careful we don't let someone get an MP a free car for example - we don't allow that kind of corruption of our MPs. But then we allow people to give election money, which is a thing the MP wants most of all."

The call comes in the wake of new revelations about how a businessman funnelled $150,000 to the National Party through a Chinese-owned by New Zealand-registered company in 2017. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called it "outside the spirit of the law", which bans foreign donations of more than $1500 per electoral cycle. 

National leader Simon Bridges brushed off criticism, saying it was "old news" and adhered to the rules. Hager wants the rules changed.

"Things are legal because we've got bad laws," he told host Simon Shepherd. "It wasn't transparent."

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson wants foreign donations banned altogether, anonymous donations limited to just $1000 (it's currently $15,000) and an overall cap of $35,000.

"At the moment big business can buy influence over our political system - there is no limit to what they can donate... At the moment, our current laws are ripe for dodgy dealing."

Hager couldn't point to anything specific National's donor would have received in exchange, saying the "whole point is the system is set up so legally you can do things which no one will ever know what happened".

He says "normal" supporters of a political party don't give more than $1000.

"After that, no ordinary person is doing it... It gives them influence. That's why they put that money in. So the simple, clean answer is if you want to stop the very dodgy money is you stop the rest of the dodgy money. It's a simple solution. Many countries around the world have systems that do that, and we can too."

Nicky Hager.
Nicky Hager. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

But without donations, political parties will have to rely on taxpayer funding to run their campaigns. Hager says this would be preferable to the status quo.

"Rather than them going off to get all sorts of slightly dodgy, slightly mildy legal but corrupt kind of ways from everyone who's got lots of money, you just pay some public money... It's just like we pay our police so they don't have to collect bribes... we pay MPs so they don't have to work on the side."

While many taxpayers would object to that, Hager says the cost would be a "tiny fraction of a percentage" of the "tens of billions" of dollars the Government spends every year, and worth it to ensure big business and wealthy foreigners don't have undue influence over our politicians.

"Companies can be owned by companies can be owned by companies, can be owned in the British Virgin Islands, in the Cayman Islands, in Singapore, and so thinking that if you had a really serious, organised state actor trying to put money into your political system that it will be easy to find, is just not true... 

"You have to take out the secret money from the whole political system. It's as simple as that."

The justice select committee is presently working on a report that is expected to detail ways in which we can improve the integrity of not just our parliamentary elections, but also local government elections. But it's well overdue - normally it would be delivered within a year of a general election, but it's now been two. 

Marama Davidson.
Marama Davidson. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

Davidson told Newshub Nation if it's not delivered soon, it'll be too late - and Justice Minister Andrew Little agrees.

"I've already introduced some legislation for some changes for next year's election... but I specifically asked the committee to look into foreign interference and foreign donations. That was nearly a year ago, and we still don't have a report. I am getting concerned about that too.

"If I don't see something soon, then I'll be talking to my colleagues in Cabinet about the Government simply just taking the next step and taking some action."

He said part of the problem is the committee is politically balanced - no party or political alignment has a majority, so everything has to be agreed on by both sides.

"One member on the committee can effectively veto a decision to progress things... that's part of the challenge that they've got." 

He has spoken to committee chair Meka Whaitiri about his concerns.

"She says they are making progress. Meka, in fairness, has only chaired the committee for a few weeks."

The report is expected by the end of the year, but Little wants it sooner than that. 

"If I don't see something in the next couple of months it's going to be difficult to introduce legislation dealing with the foreign donations issue that allows the public to have a good say on it, a good public debate on it, to pass legislation in time for next year's general election."

"Elections only happen once every three years, and they should get on with it like all countries are at the moment," added Hager, saying closing loopholes - like the one which let a Chinese businessman give $150,000 to National - won't work because there will always be more loopholes.

"Just closing up the current creaky little piece of law... isn't going to solve the problem." 



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