4 Dec 2019

Bill banning foreign donations: 'You've got a panicked government' - Bridges

9:42 am on 4 December 2019

National leader Simon Bridges has attacked the government's proposal to curb foreign political donations, saying it does not go far enough, but refused to commit to broader changes himself.

Simon Bridges in the RNZ Auckland studio for an interview on Morning Report.

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

A bill essentially banning foreign donations to political parties will continue being debated under urgency today, after only getting through its first and second readings last night.

The bill would see the threshold for foreign donations drop from $1500 to $50, in a bid to protect against foreign interference in New Zealand politics.

Justice Minister Andrew Little told the House urgency was necessary because the changes needed to be in force in time for next year.

But the opposition argued the rush was completely unjustified, and the bill was just "pantomime politics" that did nothing to address the threat of foreign influence.

During the debate yesterday, Mr Little said intelligence officials had confirmed the potential risk of foreign interference in New Zealand's democracy was real.

He said it would be bad form if the government did not heed the warnings, and failed to have the new law in place by 1 January.

"This House would be failing its duty if it poo-pooed the evidence given to the Justice committee, and thought that it was okay to expose our democratic system to the risks that are very clear cut and have been manifest in democracies around the world," he said.

The bill puts the onus on party secretaries to do their due diligence and ensure donations over $50 aren't from overseas sources.

But it won't stop foreign donors circumventing the rules and funnelling donations through New Zealand-based trusts or companies.

While National voted for the bill at both readings - it said it saw it as simply "window-dressing".

The party's electoral law reform spokesperson Nick Smith said the government should be ashamed of rushing it through.

"It is just a disgrace that the minister is wanting the Parliament to rubber-stamp his particular changes in this area when it is bleedingly obvious that this bill does not go nearly far enough," Dr Smith said.

Mr Little said while this change would not plug every gap, it went a long way towards doing so.

He gave a donation received by the National Party as an example.

"If it's $150,000 from a company whose name is 'New Zealand Mongolian Thoroughbred Racing Limited' then I expect much more rigourous and intensive due diligence requirements to be fulfilled," Mr Little said.

Speaking to Morning Report today, National's leader Simon Bridges said the party would support the bill, but in truth he thought it was very minor.

"You've got a panicked government that wants to look busy because they're at the end of their second year where they've failed to deliver," he said.

He said a "real electoral bill" might have something to say about foundations and trusts like the New Zealand First Foundation, but this one was silent on that.

RNZ's Morning Report presenter Kim Hill challenged him on that, saying in that case such bill would perhaps have something to say about the $150,000 donation to the National Party by a Chinese company.

He refused to answer that directly and the interview got combative as he spent the next six minutes evading questioning on it.

Mr Bridges: "I haven't come on the show to give you chapter and verse the 29 things we think about foreign donations."

Kim Hill: "I didn't ask you for 29 things.

Mr Bridges: "I understand but you are trying to get to a position where I will say 'well I will do these seven things' or something, I'm not going to do that today, Kim.

Kim Hill: "Just trying to get a moral compass.

Mr Bridges: "Well that's an interesting way you put it Kim but the reality is right now when we had a New Zealand First Foundation scandal a week or two back and suddenly the leader of New Zealand First was overseas...

Kim Hill: "You're not going to start talking about that when you won't answer my questions about $150,000 to the National Party are you?

Mr Bridges: "You just used the words 'moral compass' and so I think in the context of that I'm quite entitled to talk about the New Zealand First situation.

Kim Hill: "Not when you haven't answered my question to you Mr Bridges."

ACT leader David Seymour voted against the bill, describing it as "an indulgence in pantomime politics - huge amounts of drama and theatrics, for very little purpose".

He said the change was meaningless, and would be impossible to enforce.

"This government has run out of ideas and they thought that doing something dramatic and going after something that nobody likes would get them a good cycle in the headlines, better than the 24 hours they had beforehand," Mr Seymour said.

Bill achieves very little - Law professor

Law professor at Otago University, Andrew Geddis, agreed that the bill achieved very little.

"The bill still leaves open quite obvious channels where foreign money can flow... It's a change, but it's hardly that New Zealand's democracy would be sold out for $1500," he said.

Mr Geddis said there was only one way to truly rid politics of foreign influence.

"Have a rule that says only New Zealand voters are allowed to donate to parties. But, of course, that would reduce the amount of money that political parties are able to raise.

"Unless you're prepared to go down the route of giving some sort of state funding to replace that money you just won't have parties with the money they need to be able to operate," Mr Geddis said.

Ministry officials are looking at how to close loopholes, like trusts that can help disguise foreign donations, but Mr Little said complicated, wholesale reforms will have to wait until next term.

Greens support urgency

Greens Justice Spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said her party was supporting the bill under urgency because action was needed now to ensure these laws are in place in time for the next election and because substantive consultation had already occurred.

She stressed this was just the first step.

"It's sending a signal to the world and to New Zealand that this House cares about democracy and we have heard their voices, through the months long select committee process," she said.

Parliament will continue debating the rest of the stages of the bill under urgency this morning.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs