The heart of the matter is, why do we want to know the identity of donors? If it’s because we think their cash buys influence, then what sort of influence do we imagine $1000 buys? Or even $10,000, come to that, given that Labour and National both spent more than $2 million last campaign? And when it comes to influence, two plus two can easily look like making five, six or seven. Business donors tend to favour National, and National policy tends to favour business. Does that mean that if business – in say, a recession – gave the Nats less money, this Government would curtail its business-favourable policies? If the unions were prevented from funding Labour, would a Labour Government suddenly find it less important to legislate for pro-union laws? The worry about wealthy donors and third-party political activism leading to corruption is understandable. But in the US, where direct and third-party funding is heavily regulated, people still haven’t got on top of either perceived or actual corruption. What hope do we have? The safeguard may lie in our national mistrust of anyone flashing big bucks around. Any time voters see a vested interest spending up large on political ads, they tend not to think, “Oh gosh, that’s interesting!”, but “Huh! There’s some cheeky bugger trying to influence my vote.” We’re not easily impressed by this behaviour – quite the opposite. The Exclusive Brethren church did incalculable damage by love-bombing National with an anti-Labour pamphlet campaign in the 2005 election – aided, it has to be said, by a degree of complicity from National seniors intoxicated by flattery and money. Much good it did them. Likewise, the fiscal attentions of Owen Glenn were almost certainly the difference between New Zealand First’s vote getting over the 5% threshold and missing out.
Clifton’s above section very nicely and concisely encapsulates the arguments that I put forward on this blog post entitled Political finance and inequality in New Zealand (or in a slightly different form available as Download Political finance and inequality in New Zealand in the NZ Sociology journal). Also in the column, Clifton makes some further salient points. She speaks of the fact that changes to political finance rules shouldn’t be termed as ‘reforms’ as they are inevitably now just part of the constant battle to change the rules, and usually don’t actually improve things:
We should officially give up calling this a debate about electoral reform. As we have learnt from bitter experience, reform is too generous a word. All we can count on is change, leading to more bitter experience, leading to more change and so on.
She also points out that much of the debate on political finance is based on the crude assumption that the character of politics and public policy is determined by donations, and that the public has been fed this very crude caricature of politics by political finance ‘reformers’:
Naturally, this environment has convinced the public that our system is a virtual ATM for vested interests; that big cigar-chomping businessmen and Mao-suited union officials are constantly inserting cheques into party coffers, and extracting secret favours. If only it were that simple.
Some excellent points, well made.