23 Aug 2023

National banks 7.5 times more in donations than Labour

7:00 am on 23 August 2023
Blue bucket overflowing with gold coins overshadows a red bucket with fewer coins.

Since 2021, National has attracted millions of dollars more in donations than Labour. Photo: RNZ

The National Party has raked in more than seven times more in donations than Labour since the start of 2021, raising concerns our political donation rules are tilted towards those with the deepest pockets.

Victoria University of Wellington Senior Research Fellow Max Rashbrooke said current rules favour parties on the right of the political spectrum, whose "supporters tend to be wealthier".

"Most countries put a limit on how much you can give to any political party to limit the influence people can exert," said Rashbrooke, who called our donation rules "loose" compared to other countries.

New Zealand's rules also allow businesses to make donations to parties, with no limits on the amount which can be given.

National has received $8.2m since the start of 2021, followed by ACT on $4.2m. This brings the total raised by the two parties over this period to more than $12m.

The Green Party has raised $1.4m, ahead of Labour (almost $1.1m).

NZ First has also reported receiving $1m in donations.

Te Pāti Māori has received $99k, 82 times less in donations than the National Party during the same time period.

The ability for wealthy people to donate large sums creates a "huge obvious imbalance", Rashbrooke said.

"The amount rolling in is unprecedented," said David Farrar, whose company Curia Market Research, does polling for the National Party.

"It's almost exponentially larger than you've had in the past, not just in the last 12 months, but in the previous 12 months."

In the past, $30,000 to $50,000 was considered a significant donation, and donations of $100,000 were rare, Farrar said.

"And now what we've got is multiple people, to multiple parties in fact, giving between $100,000 to $500,000."

The biggest one-off donation since the beginning of 2023 has come from Warren Lewis, who is involved in a sheet metal business. He donated $500,000 to National in June. The party has also received a donation of $200,000 from Buen Holdings, which is involved in manufacturing health-related products and supplements. There have been numerous donations of $100,000.

Other donors have given large sums but split them between parties. Trevor Farmer has donated $250,000 in 2023, giving National and ACT $100,000 each and NZ First $50,000. Mark Wyborn donated $150,000 to NZ First and $50,000 to National. Christopher & Banks Limited has donated $200,000, split evenly between National and ACT.

Farrar believes National is benefiting from a strong desire to change the government.

"I don't think policy is a big part because a huge amount of donations came in before there was a lot of policy out there."

Between 2015 and 2017, when Labour was challenging for the Treasury benches, it got $2.4m in donations. Since 2021, while it has been in power, it has received only $1m.

National's $8.2m tally since 2021 far outstrips Labour in the same period.

Does money matter?

A healthy bank account helps with campaigning although not all of the funds can be spent on campaign advertising.

During the election regulated period, which started on 14 July and runs until election day on 14 October, parties are limited to spending $1,388,000 per party, plus $32,600 per electorate contested by the party to promote themselves. Parties also receive a taxpayer-funded broadcasting allocation which is additional to this figure. The broadcasting funds can be spent on television, radio and online advertising.

But there are plenty of ways money can be spent without breaking these rules.

"If you have a choice, you always want more money than less, because it gives you options," Farrar said.

Polling is one of the activities not caught by the spending caps. Venue hire and transport also doesn't fall under the cap, although ACT and Labour reported some spending on these in their expense report for the 2020 election.

ACT leader David Seymour, on the Election 2020 campaign trail.

ACT leader David Seymour, on the campaign trail in 2020. ACT reported spending $13,500 on a bus driver and fuel in its 2020 return. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

National Party President Sylvia Wood said the party was grateful for the support it received and that donations funded a variety of activities.

"Donations to National help us run a strong party vote campaign across the country, including paid advertising, campaign events, and voter contact. Donations also support our small administrative wing, which facilitates party operations, membership, events and the financial and compliance requirements of a large political party."

Labour's party secretary did not respond to a request for an interview.

Support isn't always monetary, according to Farrar. While Labour gets less in donations, he said it gets support from union staff.

"It's generally known during the last three months of an election, that you've got numerous full time union staff out there, popping up Labour hoardings, helping out, going to meetings, etc, and they're not going to get sacked by their employer for doing this on work time."

RNZ asked E Tū union, the NZCTU (New Zealand Council of Trade Unions) and the PSA (Public Service Association Te Pūkenga Here Tikanga Mahi) if staff had helped the Labour Party in this way.

E Tū's spokesperson said some staff may offer help in their spare time, but it's not something which is done in work hours. An NZCTU spokesperson told RNZ it's not affiliated with the Labour Party, and had never heard of this happening on company time, but said members may have helped out in a personal capacity in their own time. The PSA, which has 80,000 members, said it had no comment to make, and that it's not a Labour affiliated union.