7 Sep 2017

Māori Party defends sending messages with virtual money

6:39 pm on 7 September 2017

The Māori Party is blaming a volunteer for sending messages with virtual money attached to potential supporters, but is adamant its candidate is not at fault.

Maori Party president Tukoroirangi Morgan

Māori Party president Tukoroirangi Morgan says the party is a victim of a smear campaign. Photo: RNZ

The Electoral Commission is investigating the party's first Asian candidate Wetex Kang, amid allegations his campaign offered the cash credits to people receiving the messages on the Chinese social media app WeChat.

Māori Party president Tukoroirangi Morgan said he was confident Mr Kang had done nothing wrong.

Mr Kang was staying silent on the matter today, but Mr Morgan called a press conference this afternoon to answer the allegations.

He suggested the complaint was the result of a "smear campaign" against Mr Kang and the Māori Party.

The WeChat messages that included "red envelopes" - or virtual currency - were sent by one Mr Kang's volunteers as well as two independent supporters, he said.

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Wetex Kang Photo: www.maoriparty.org

"I've gone through every post ... and I'm confident that our candidate will stand up to the rigourous investigation by the Electoral Commission," Mr Morgan said.

He then launched an attack on Bevan Chuang, who was the person he believed was responsible for alerting the Commission to the messages.

"This is a smear campaign on the Maori Party."

Ms Chuang was catapulted into the spotlight during the 2013 Auckland Mayoral race when she it was revealed she had an affair with then-mayor Len Brown.

Mr Morgan alleged Ms Chuang forwarded the WeChat messages to the Electoral Commission after she was refused a job on Mr Kang's campaign.

Ms Chuang denied the accusation and said her motives were not personal or politically motivated.

"I have a friend who sent me a screenshot [of the message] because she was concerned what was happening in the WeChat group.

"All I've done is send this to the Electoral Commission and asked if this is okay."

The Electoral Commission confirmed it had received several complaints about the use of WeChat associated with the Māori Party and one complaint about another political party.

Electoral law expert Graeme Edgeler said the law was quite clear.

"It's a criminal offence for anyone, including a candidate or someone on their behalf, to bribe a voter.

"And that includes giving them money or gifts or things that are worth money in order to vote for them, stop them voting ... or even forbids you from paying someone and saying 'Hey, I'll give you $5 if you vote and I don't care who you vote for."

The Māori Party said 1847 people received the messages on WeChat, but the total amount attached to them was only $27 dollars - that was just over one cent each.

WeChat credits are based on the Chinese system of hongbao, or red envelope, where money is given to family and friends as a gift.

The credits can then be used to purchase items or be credited to a person's Chinese bank account once a certain amount is reached.

A Chinese social media PhD student at Massey University, Louie Lu, said it was a cultural practice to give red envelopes in WeChat conversations to encourage people to participate in discussions.

The Māori Party likened the cultural practice to giving a koha to a marae.

Mr Edgeler said the gifting of WeChat credits during an election campaign, even if it is was a cultural practice, could still flout the law.

The Māori Party said it would release all the information it had given to the Electoral Commission for its investigation, but would not say when it would do this.