27 Jun 2022

Political donations, overseas voting rules to change before election - Minister

4:52 pm on 27 June 2022

Political party donations and overseas voting rules will change ahead of next year's general election, Justice Minister Kiri Allan has announced.

Kiri Allan

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

In a statement, Allan said an Electoral Amendment Bill would soon be introduced to tighten the rules for disclosure of political donations and loans, and temporarily widen access for overseas voters.

The bill would require the identity of donors of more than $5000 to be made public - down from $15,000 - along with loans to candidates from unregistered lenders.

Parties would also be required to make public their financial statements, the number and total value of non-anonymous donations below $1500, and the proportion of total donations that are non-monetary.

Allan, who came to the role two weeks ago, said public and targeted consultation showed New Zealanders wanted greater transparency about how candidates and parties were funded.

"Better transparency of party and candidate financing helps support public trust and confidence in our electoral system. These changes will provide the public with more of the information they want," she said.

It comes as a trial for two men accused of fraud over donations to the New Zealand First Foundation continues at the High Court at Auckland.

Indeed, donations to political parties were a hot topic during the 2020 election, with the Serious Fraud Office also looking into donations to Labour, National and the Māori Party. The Labour and National cases are expected to be heard together in a 10-week trial next month.

Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson this afternoon said the lower limit for disclosures, while higher than the $1500 a Ministry of Justice consultation document suggested, was still a significant improvement.

"My understanding is that the advice from officials was that as you go further and further down the administrative burden and costs of having to go through and identify all of those people starts to counterbalance the value of what you're doing."

Overseas voting

The amendment would also change the rules for next year's election to extend voting rights for New Zealand citizens and permanent residents living overseas, due to travel constraints during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Citizens would have to have visited within the past six years - up from three - while permanent residents' eligibility would be extended from one year to four.

However, Allan said this change would only be specific to the 2023 general election.

"There have been some unique challenges facing New Zealand citizens and permanent residents who haven't been able to return home over the last two years, including Covid-19 travel restrictions and mandatory isolation requirements," Allan said.

"While many requirements have been lifted, overseas voters still face considerable financial, travel, health, and logistical barriers to returning home, including the risk of further Covid-19 restrictions."

She said permanent changes to overseas voting eligibility would be considered by the independent review of electoral law reporting back by the end of next year.

Robertson said the changes were a significant improvement and given the time left before the next election "it is a job well done".

Greens urge further changes

The bill offers a more constrained and Labour-led approach to similar changes proposed in a member's bill from Green Party justice spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman.

Drawn from the biscuit tin last month, the member's bill would also have allowed Māori roll voters to change roll at any time, lower the voting age to 16, overturn the prisoner voting ban, and implement the recommendations of the 2012 MMP review.

In a statement, Ghahraman said the Greens had been the only party consistently calling for changes to electoral funding, and credited this pressure for the government's announcement.

"Only last week we heard about the influence wealthy individuals were having on New Zealand First's position on the capital gains tax in the last term of government. It is not inconceivable to think that we may have a capital gains tax in place now if it weren't for the ability of wealthy people to donate anonymously," she said.

She urged further changes including a cap on total donations to a party, and for the changes to overseas voting eligibility to be made permanent.

ACT warns changes will prevent engagement

ACT leader David Seymour said the changes would not solve any public policy problem, and would prevent people engaging in politics.

"Everyone supports openness and transparency, but these changes have nothing to do with that and Labour can't explain why they're needed," he said.

"The law is working - that's why people are being prosecuted. We aren't talking about changing the laws around murder because people have been charged with it."

He said there was no evidence donations of $15,000 or under were distorting politics in any way.

"If anyone seriously thinks that a political party would abandon its integrity and principles for $15,000, then they don't understand the cost of modern campaigning.

"It is outrageous that Labour are pushing these through just before an election. Changes to electoral law should be widely consulted on with a view to implementing them in later electoral cycles, not the one they're currently contesting."

He said the fact Labour was pushing the changes through with its majority was constitutionally dangerous and damaging to New Zealand.

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