Jacinda Ardern signals electoral law changes after Labour joins list of donation investigations

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has signalled electoral law changes now that multiple political parties are under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office. 

The SFO said on Thursday it had charged six people in relation to a donation made to the Labour Party in 2017. It confirmed none of the defendants are sitting MPs or are current or former officials of the Labour Party.  

Labour now joins a list of parties being investigated by the SFO over donations. The law enforcement agency is also investigating donations made to the National Party, Māori Party and the NZ First Foundation. 

"That sends a message to us in the political system that we should be looking at the way our regime works. Clearly, it's not currently, so let's do something about that," Ardern told reporters on Thursday. 

"Some of these issues that are being investigated across four different parties relate to donations that have been made to them and haven't always implicated the parties themselves.

"But I think that still is incumbent on us to go away and say this isn't a good environment for anyone - for any political party, but also not for New Zealanders. They want to have confidence in the system so let's look at the law."

Court documents released to media show five men and one woman have been accused of adopting a "fraudulent device, trick or stratagem", where donations were paid via an intermediary account before being paid to, and retained by, the Labour Party.

Court papers also show the group is accused of providing five names to "create the illusion" of five donations of sums of less than $15,000 to conceal the amount and identity of the actual donor.

Labour's general-secretary Rob Salmond is confident the party followed the law.

Last month police referred the Māori Party to the SFO after it failed to declare hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations on time. 

All political donations above $30,000 must be declared to the Electoral Commission within 10 working days, but the Māori Party failed to do so with three large donations made between March and October.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has signaled electoral law changes.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has signaled electoral law changes. Photo credit: Newshub

The National Party got off with a warning from the Electoral Commission, after it failed to declare $35,000 in donations. But another SFO prosecution, involving donations to the National Party, is set to go to trial in September.

Former National MP Jami-Lee Ross and a trio of businessmen were charged in January last year over donations of $100,000 in 2017 and $100,050 in 2018. All four have pleaded not guilty. 

Meanwhile, two people were charged in September by the SFO over donations involving the NZ First Foundation. The pair still have name suppression and a hearing to determine whether their identity will be made public will be held in June. 

NZ First leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has distanced himself from the NZ First Foundation and has denied any wrongdoing after it came under scrutiny in November 2019. 

The Electoral Commission recently revealed another referral to police - a candidate who allegedly failed to disclose donations. It wouldn't disclose who it was, but he did it himself in a Facebook video: Billy Te Kahika, who co-led Advance NZ.

Police confirmed to Newshub the matter was still being assessed.

Ardern has raised concerns about the current system of electoral law before. In August 2019, she accused National of operating "outside the spirit of the law", for accepting a $150,000 donation from a Chinese billionaire channelled through a New Zealand business.  

In an attempt to stop foreign governments influencing or disrupting New Zealand's democracy ahead of the 2020 election, the Government banned foreign donations over $50 down from $1500. 

But Ardern admitted it wouldn't stop an apparent loophole: big foreign donations of over $100,000 being funnelled through New Zealand trusts, businesses or foundations.