Electoral Commission data reveals how candidates funded their campaigns in 2023 election

Most donations from businesses went to National candidates.
Most donations from businesses went to National candidates. Photo credit: Getty Images

Story by Farah Hancock of RNZ

The National Party poured money into winning electorate seats, donating almost $2 million from its own coffers to its candidates.

An RNZ analysis of data released by the Electoral Commission shows National donated more money to its own candidates than candidates from all other parties combined received from all sources ($1.4m).

Eighty percent of money received by National Party candidates came from party affiliated coffers and 9 percent came from businesses or individuals.

The Labour Party was the only other party which funded its own candidates heavily, with close to 50 percent of candidate donations coming from party or party-related groups such as local Labour electorate offices. Thirty-five percent came from individuals, 8 percent from businesses and 5 percent ($42,760) from unions.

Individuals provided the biggest proportion of donations for the Green Party, NZ First, ACT and Te Pāti Māori.

Electoral Commission data reveals how candidates funded their campaigns in 2023 election
Photo credit: RNZ

Who are the big donors to candidates?

By law, all candidates must submit returns identifying the source of any donations of $1500 and above.

The biggest non-party donation to a candidate came from finance company New Zealand Mortgages & Securities which gave $40,000 to National's Upper Harbour candidate Cameron Brewer. Green Party candidate Chlöe Swarbrick received $35,000 from arts patron Erika Congreve. Both Brewer and Swarbrick won their electorates.

The third biggest non-party donation was made to an independent candidate standing in the West Coast-Tasman electorate. Patrick Sean Phelps, a former RNZ journalist, is the trust manager of mining advocacy group Minerals West Coast. He was given $32,600 by mining company Bathurst Resources.

Most donations from businesses went to National candidates. The biggest proportion came from companies associated with aggregates, construction and building, followed by the companies involved in the finance sector, then the property industry. Businesses involved in the automotive industry also contributed almost $30,000 to candidates.

The fishing industry gave $16,000 in total to NZ First and National Party candidates in Christchurch Central, Northland, West Coast Tasman and Wigram.

Electoral Commission data reveals how candidates funded their campaigns in 2023 election
Photo credit: RNZ

Who spent the most

Candidates were allowed to spend a maximum of $32,600 each campaigning in the 2023 general election.

The candidate who poured the most money into winning was Labour's Rachel Boyak, who spent just under the legal spending cap of $32,600. Boyak won the Nelson seat by 26 votes.

Electoral Commission data reveals how candidates funded their campaigns in 2023 election
Photo credit: RNZ

Two Green candidates feature in the top 10 successful spenders, with Julie Anne Genter spending $32,555 to secure the Rongotai electorate and Swarbrick also spending more than $30,000 to win Auckland Central. Tamantha Paul, who won the Green Party's third seat in the election was the 14th biggest spender.

For those who spent money fruitlessly, National candidates dominated the top ten unsuccessful spenders, but overall it was Labour candidates who spent the most without success, declaring $656,408 in expenses in total compared to National's $497,014.

For parties which didn't make it into power either through an electorate win, or by securing five percent of the party vote, Democracy NZ's Scotty Bright had the most expensive loss, spending close to $42,000 in an attempt to win the Port Waikato seat - well in excess of the legal spending limit of $32,000. The Electoral Commission's legal and policy manager Kristina Temel said the commission was following up with Bright on his expenses. Candidates which stood in Port Waikato must submit expenses returns for the general election and the by-election which ran after the death of a candidate. The by-election return is not due until 26 March.

The Opportunities Party's leader Raf Manji was the second biggest unsuccessful spender. The party campaigned on an electorate win for Manji in Ilam as a pathway into parliament. Manji came in second place, 7830 votes behind National's Hamish Campbell who spent $26,386. Patrick Sean Phelps, who was backed with a $32,600 donation from Bathurst Resources spent almost $30,000. He received almost 6000 votes.

For candidates from parties that made it to Parliament, NZ First's Tanya Unkovoch spent the most per vote gained. Unkovich stood in Auckland's Epsom electorate and spent $11,344, receiving 573 votes. Fellow party members Casey Costello and Shane Jones joined Unkovich in the top 10 by this measure, spending $3 for every vote they gained. All three NZ First candidates failed to win the electorate they stood in but are now MPs due to their position on NZ First's list.

Where was the most spent

The electorate where candidates as a group spent up large included Northland, where National's Grant McCallum faced off against former National MP Matt King, who stood for Democracy NZ, and NZ First's Shane Jones, each spending more than $20,000 campaigning. Northland Party's Mike Finlayson also spent $15,618 in that race, receiving 369 votes. In total, more than $100,000 was spent by candidates in the electorate, with National's McCallum taking the seat.

Three electorates which Green candidates won feature in the top 10, with the Green candidate in each spending more than their contenders.

Smaller party and independent candidates boosted the overall spending in West Coast-Tasman, Port Waikato and Ilam electorates.