Analysis: Property industry tops political donations

By Fran Hancock for RNZ

An RNZ analysis of political donations since 2021 shows people involved in the property industry are giving the most - and almost all of it is going to National, ACT and NZ First.

Since 2021, people aligned with the property industry have donated more than $2.5 million to political parties.

More than half of the cash from the property industry went to the National Party (53 percent), followed by ACT (32 percent) and New Zealand First (12 percent). Labour received 2 percent.

The figures have been derived by RNZ by examining political donation returns alongside Companies Office records. Private donors to political parties were matched to the predominant industries where they were listed as a company director.

After property, the second biggest industry to donate in this period was the finance sector ($1.97m), followed by the manufacturing and retail sector ($1.92m). These industries also donated mostly to National, ACT and NZ First.

Analysis: Property industry tops political donations
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RNZ's analysis shows National has received more than $1.3m in donations from people involved in the property industry since the beginning of 2021. The party has made no secret of a series of policies it has that are favourable to the property sector.

Currently, tax must be paid on most residential rental properties sold within 10 years of purchase. National wants to reduce this to two years. The party also wants to give a further tax cut to rental property owners by restoring tax deductibility on borrowing costs. And it wants to allow foreigners to buy property for anything over $2m.

Former National Party press secretary Ben Thomas said he was not aware of donations "buying policy" from the party. But donors from the property industry would support parties that favoured loosening restrictions as it was a "huge source of cost for them".

"There's no secret that the RMA [Resource Management Act] has been a handbrake on development," Thomas said.

Victoria University of Wellington senior research fellow Max Rashbrooke said the property industry was directly affected by government decisions around zoning, development and building rules. "There's a very strong interest, I think from that sector, in having some influence."

He also described it as an area ripe for conflicts of interest.

Conflicts of interest

Rashbrooke, who talked to numerous donors when co-writing the Money for Something report, said he was told donations made it easier to get meetings with ministers, and donors enjoyed a "constant level of access that mere mortals can only dream of".

The donors all denied the increased access flowed through to influence, something Rashbrooke thought was "highly dubious".

"It goes against everything we know about human nature, but that was the line that people tried to take with us."

Thomas, who now works for lobbying and government relations company Capital, agreed donors could get meetings more easily, though MPs also met with plenty of people who did not donate.

The third-highest donor in the property sector, giving $206,154.23 since the beginning of 2021, is Christopher Meehan, his family and the companies he is a director of, including Speargrass Holdings. They have given money to National and ACT.

Questions have been raised over the donations because Meehan's property development company Winton is locked in a legal battle with the state house developer Kāinga Ora.

About five months after Speargrass Holdings gave a $52,894 donation to National, the party's spokesman for housing Chris Bishop issued a statement in support of Meehan's court case against Kāinga Ora. Bishop told Newsroom he was unaware of the existing donation when he made the statement, or of plans by Meehan to make further donations. ACT's deputy leader and housing spokeswoman Brooke van Velden also spoke out in support of the developer.

Meehan told Newsroom he had made political contributions to National and Act for a number of years "to support the democratic process".

Equal donations 'out of fashion'

The idea of "supporting democracy" with donations remained common, Rashbrooke said, but it was more difficult to sustain in recent cases.

In the early 2000s Westpac, Lion Nathan, and Clear Communications gave equally to both parties. That was now rare.

"It's [donating to support democracy] simply not true because people are only giving to one side of politics now."

Thomas said the habit of giving equally to all parties had slipped out of fashion in the early 2000s, especially when donating via a company.

For listed companies, justifying what value a donation had on a share price might be difficult, and often companies have their own corporate social responsibility programme.

Analysis: Property industry tops political donations
Photo credit: RNZ

The biggest donors

The biggest single donor from the property industry since the start of 2021 was Trevor Farmer who has given $480,000 in total. This included $215,000 each to National and ACT and $50,000 to NZ First. The NBR's rich list estimates the family's worth at $900 million. Farmer's son Dean Farmer is a director of numerous companies, including Tramco, which claims to have a $2 billion property portfolio.

Mark Wyborn has donated $300,000 - made up of $150,000 for NZ First, $100,000 for National and $50,000 for ACT. The NBR's list of wealthy New Zealanders estimates the Wyborn family worth at $695 million.

Only one donor with directorships in property-related industries donated to the Labour Party. Mark Todd of Ockham Residential donated $50,000. A representative from the company said Todd believed legislation "which reins in the lord bit of landlord" was a good thing.

Analysis: Property industry tops political donations
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The second biggest industry contributor to party coffers was the finance industry, with almost $2m donated.

The biggest donor in this sector was New Zealand's wealthiest man, Graeme Hart. The billionaire donated $804,000, both personally and through Rank Group, a company of which he is a director and sole shareholder. Hart donated $400,000 to National, $304,000 to ACT and $150,000 to NZ First. The NBR estimates Hart's wealth at $12 billion.

Hart was questioned by the Serious Fraud Office during the investigation of the New Zealand First Foundation which followed an RNZ investigation.

Newsroom reported donations just under the declarable limit were made in March 2019 to the foundation after a public relations consultant orchestrated a meeting with Hart's son-in-law Duncan Hawkesby and NZ First MP Clayton Mitchell.

An email from the PR consultant with the subject line "re CGT" said Mitchell's stance on a capital gains tax aligned with Hawkesby's. A meeting Hart briefly attended between Hawkesby and Mitchell occurred and three donations of $14,995 were made from different companies aligned with the family.

In April 2019, then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed a capital gains tax would not be introduced saying consensus could not be reached between parties in government.

The next highest donor from the finance sector in the period since 2021 was investment company Christopher & Banks, which has donated a total of $300,000. The National Party received $200,000 and ACT $100,000 from it. The company is linked to Christopher Huljich, and a former director was John Banks.

Murray Bolton donated $250,000 to National. Bolton made headlines during Covid-19 lockdowns with a court bid to skip MIQ if he travelled by private jet to an offshore meeting, then isolated at home. Bolton won the case.

Analysis: Property industry tops political donations

The manufacturing and retail sector was third-largest for donations. It included a first-time donor's $500,000 donation to National, which is thought to be one of the largest one-off donations ever made. The owner of FMI building innovations Warren Lewis told the NBR he believed the National Party and Christopher Luxon were the best hope to unite what he sees as a divided country. He said before making the donation he asked to meet with Luxon personally "to look the man in the eye" and judge whether he was the right person for the job.

Toy manufacturer Zuru's co-founder Nicholas Mowbray donated $400,000, with National receiving $250,000 and ACT $150,000. Buen Holdings, which makes health-related products and supplements, made a $200,000 donation to National.

People with interests in manufacturing also donated to the left of the political spectrum. The Weft Knitting company donated $100,000 to the Green Party and Dick Hubbard donated $100,000 to Labour.

Analysis: Property industry tops political donations
Photo credit: RNZ
Analysis: Property industry tops political donations
Photo credit: RNZ

Lesser donors

Further down the list of donors, the agriculture and horticulture sector gave $563,404.

"The National Party doesn't need donations to represent the interests of farmers, that's something that's encoded in the DNA," Thomas said.

It was a similar situation with Labour and unions, which have donated $275,000 to date. "Even if you took away the donations and the [union] affiliations, and things entirely, Labour would still be a party for unions - the principles tend to come first."

Horse racing ranked relatively high for the small size of the industry, Rashbrooke said. Horse breeder Peter Vela has donated $162,500 in total including $62,500 to National in 2022 and $50,000 each to ACT and NZ First in 2023.

"A lot of that is the Winston Peters factor. He's long declared himself a friend of the racing industry. That's probably another one to watch, depending on how the election turns out," Rashbrooke said.