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Secret ballot, secrecy of donations

  • October 14th, 2019

In Wellington the defeat of a sitting Labour Mayor has produced shock ripples. They’d be waves but even the most anti-car leftie will have friends and associates furious about the incompetence of local government on transport matters.  Lester managed to get himself on the target list by a recent dumb surrender to a Green ban on necessary new infrastructure, which he tried foolishly to paint as the opposite. So he is a deserving though non-atoning sacrifice.

But grief emerges in other ways. One theme has been to attribute the Foster success to ‘big money’ – in this case from the Sir Peter Jackson camp. It could fire up yet another attempt to get coerced (rate or taxpayer) funding for elections and to ban private campaigns. Or it could emerge as a campaign for more disclosure of campaign donations.

Last week I was politely canvassed by Stuff, with the following questions

1. Have you had a direct donation to any Mayoral campaign? If so, how much?
2. Have you donated any items to any fundraiser for any mayoral candidate?
3. Have you made any ‘in-kind’ non-cash donation to any Mayoral campaign (e.g. advertising space)? If so which candidate did you donate to and approximately what value was the donation.
4. Have you bought any items at any of these quiz night/fundraiser auctions?

As it happens I had donated a few hundred dollars to a local authority election campaign, but not to a Mayoral campaign. But I would not have answered the questions anyway. What follows is essentially my response (lightly edited for clarity)

Hi Dileep

I have been impressed by the resource Stuff has been pouring into local government affairs recently. I understand the media need to find angles that respond to peoples’ interest in the personal.

I think privacy on donations is just as important as the secrecy of the ballot, for the same reasons. The secret ballot came in because of experience of political power being used vindictively, or to teach people lessons about what happens to those known to have not supported successful oligarchs.

When I was an MP, the Justice and Electoral Select Committee (of which I was Deputy Chair) once discussed frankly, just what money sums we thought would genuinely buy influence on a party’s manifesto promises, or subsequent policy decisions in Parliament. We had a range of views, but from recollection none of us thought the threshold would be below $15k. We thought that $10k would be far too small to “buy” influence that would be material.

[I thought that in most parties something like $30k would generate unusual respect for the donor, but not a policy pen in Labour or National]

On the other hand I know from that kind of discussion with colleagues from other parties, and my own experience, that assistance during or for a campaign, does predispose one to giving time to subsequent approaches from the helper. It is simple courtesy – they’ve helped you, at the least you owe them the respect of listening to their views and concerns. That does not mean that you will act in accordance with their views. Often it just means that you will take the trouble to explain your position, if you can, instead of just ignoring or politely deflecting similar ommunication from others.

There is always too much coming to an MP to deal with at length anyway. And you become inured to getting voter advice that is unsolicited, often ill-mannered and imperious. Sometimes you ignore a correspondent (or person button-holing you or even your family in the supermarket) though you think they are dead right, because there is some political problem that means you are just accepting a situation where you can’t alter course.  [You appear to them to be ignoring them. The real reason (as I suspect Sir Peter Jackson will find) is that there is no answer that can satisfy them.]

In my experience and view, donations are pretty much the same as any other assistance. They are no more, and no less influential than loyal help distributing leaflets, or holding a cottage meeting, or sticking up for you during an awkward controversy, or organising something else in your campaign, or providing vitally useful info on an opponent.

I was probably more financially independent than most, so I doubt that any level of donation would have been compelling for me – but I support rules for disclosure of over say $10k. [I think the hygiene benefits outweigh the discouragement that it represents to donations.]

But I consider the clamour to force disclosure further below a genuine influence threshold to be wrong-headed.

Even many small donors will feel that their decisions to help are just as private to them, as is how they vote. For exactly the same reasons. And if small donors are discouraged, that makes parties more dependent on large donations from those who do not care about disclosure.

If indeed disclosure law is enforced. All over the world enforcement of election funding law is fraught with scandal and fears of corruption.  The authorities are often unwilling to tackle tough customers. NZ First, for example, has never been required to refund the amounts that became part of a scandalous disclosure nearly a decade ago.

I’m opposed to forcing more disclosure of small donations because it cannot be the end.  It will logically and eventually lead to clamour for disclosure of many more kinds of helpful connection. Why would activists who deliver pamphlets and fix bill-boards have to be subjected to the kind of flaming that is now the left’s natural response to people who oppose them. And vice versa when the right decide that the left’s conduct is the new normal for politics.

And we already have a problem that people with good careers and lives to lead do not want to be political candidates, while there are far too many failures  infesting public office, as the best jobs they could ever hold.

The greater the interest in prurient detail of private lives (family, sexual etc) and in financial matters that do not involve genuine conflicts of interest, the less likely it is that we will have great competition among seriously competent people to lead our democratic organs.

So I find contemptible the common treatment of funding and business connections as if they are improper influences, while office holders and candidates dependant on unrepresentative groups of malcontents are not. Too many of our councillors across NZ now crawl for election nomination, and then endorsement to hang on to their useless passenger appointments, to movements and organisations that primarily appeal to hostility to change. They harvest envy. They create micro tribes or communities based mostly on shared passion about who and what they hate.

Because these front groups for denouncing sinners claim virtuous intentions, they rarely have close examination of their fruits, their connections and their lack of integrity.

So [Stuff] I choose not to answer any of your questions, on the basis that they are prompted by sentiments that are ultimately hostile to the secret ballot. They are also inimical to judging politicians and candidates for what they do, and can do. Please focus your well-meant work instead on to the office-holders and candidates who we should be exposing – those who have never achieved outside politics, those who are useless or worse, and achieve power simply because of the tribes they claim, and which endorse them.


  • Philip O'Brien
  • October 15th, 2019
  • 10:34 pm

Good post Stephen

  • regei
  • April 26th, 2021
  • 1:51 pm

Good job stepen

  • D
  • April 27th, 2024
  • 9:14 pm

Didn’t age very well, did it?

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