26 Feb 2024

$2m surge in election campaign spending by third-party groups

4:00 pm on 26 February 2024
Collage of political ads and social media.

Photo: RNZ

Third-party groups poured $2 million into the election campaign, new data reveals.

Most of the record spend went on campaigners pushing for policies favoured by the centre right, and is 13 times more than was spent on the 2020 general election.

Figures released by the Electoral Commission show that of the 31 registered third-party promoters, seven spent more than $100,000 in the lead-up to voting. Only groups that spend more than $100,000 are required to share their expenses.

In previous elections, a maximum of three promoters reported spending more than $100,000. In 2020, five promoters also spent more than this on campaigning over the End of Life Choice Act referendum, but spending on promoting referendums is counted separately.

One promoter said a strong sentiment for change influenced its election spending spree.

"We felt that people were certainly going off the Labour government because of what they had been doing," farming-focused Groundswell group co-founder Bryce McKenzie said.

Groundswell spent $141,061 on campaigning material, one of five groups pushing policies on the right of the political spectrum. The Taxpayers' Union ($371,565), Hobson's Pledge ($283,899), and Family First ($204,771) all spent more than $100,000.

The Council of Trade Unions and The Better NZ Trust, which promotes electric vehicle uptake, also reported more than $100,000 in expenses.

However, the biggest spender was the relatively unknown Vote for Better, with a total spend of $386,515. This falls just under the legal spending cap for third-party promoters of $391,000.

Facebook advertising of Vote for Better

Facebook advertising for Vote for Better Photo: Composite image from screenshots

Tim Barry, who ran the campaign, told RNZ in 2023 he did not want to be interviewed. In an email he said Vote for Better was a non-partisan campaign.

"I am not doing any interviews, I'd prefer to let the data speak for itself." Barry is a director of a bloodstock business and an advertising company which has run campaigns for horse studs and the racing industry.

He did answer questions by email, saying, "I wanted to put data on key issues in one place so voters had a complete picture and it helped them make an informed decision at the election."

The money funding the advertising blitz came from "hundreds of New Zealanders from up and down the country" donating cash to the campaign. Asked if he thought the $386,514 spent affected the election's outcome, he said the "facts spoke for themselves".

The Vote for Better website and social media pages have been removed from the internet. Barry said he had not thought about running a similar campaign at the next election but "would not rule it out".

His handwritten expenses return showed all the money was spent online, on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Google advertising.

Screenshot of Vote for Better election expenses return

Photo: Screenshot

The second biggest spender was the Taxpayers' Union at $371,565. It was the first time the group had submitted an expense return, indicating any spending at previous elections was less than $100,000. Among its expenses were $85,045 for staff to prepare advertising and $40,289 for the construction of a 'Debt Clock' trailer. A television advertisement that ran 21 times cost $42,872.

When asked if he thought the advertising might have helped certain parties win more votes, co-founder Jordan Williams responded: "We certainly hope it assisted in holding the previous government to account." The group wanted tax relief and cuts to government spending.

Hobson's Pledge also increased its spending in 2023, surpassing the $254,115 it spent at the 2017 election with expenses of $283,899. A post on its website says: "Both the Act/National and the NZ First/National coalition agreements have significant policies for Hobson's Pledge supporters."

These include abolishing the Māori Health Authority, ensuring names and communication of public service departments are primarily in English, and that the name of New Zealand is not changed without a referendum.

Hobson's Pledge ran several ads online under its own Facebook page and also under the 'We Belong Aotearoa' page. This Facebook page and website, labelled by some as an "astro-turfing" attempt (where campaigning by a specific group or commercial interest is disguised as a grassroots movement), was aimed at immigrants and featured stock image photographs of people of varying ethnicities. Don Brash, founder of Hobson's Pledge, told RNZ the site was about co-governance, despite the term not featuring on the website. The Facebook page featured posts depicting Dame Whina Cooper and Martin Luther King.

Composite image of election advertising run by Hobson's Pledge

Advertisements and posts from Hobson's Pledge and We Belong Aotearoa Facebook page. Photo: Composite image from screenshots

Family First was another group that increased its spending in relation to the election campaign, declaring $204,771. This was up on $141,224 it spent in 2020, which was the largest spent by any group at that election. It also spent the same amount on each of the two referendums that coincided with the 2020 election.

Founder Bob McCoskrie said much of Family First's 2023 spend was on a "value your vote" pamphlet outlining candidate voting histories on what he considered conscience issues, such as conversion therapy, birth certificate legislation, euthanasia and abortion. The group distributed 100,000 of these around the country.

McCoskrie said he was waiting to see if election promises were honoured, though the group's website lists the "removal and replacement of the gender, sexuality, and relationship-based education guidelines" as a coalition policy it applauds. This was a policy included in the coalition agreement between National and NZ First.

McCoskrie said he was also in favour of policies around truancy, law and order and health, including funding for birthing units and breast cancer screening.

Groundswell spent the least of the seven promoters who had to provide returns, at $141,060. Bryce McKenzie said most of the advertising the organisation did was on social media. Farmers weren't big users of social media, he said, but, "it just so happened a lot of town people and city people thought what we were doing was right".

More than half of Groundswell's expenses ($78,200) were bills from The Campaign Company, of which the Taxpayers' Union's Jordan Williams is a director. This company is also listed in the expense returns for Hobson's Pledge ($34,500) and the Taxpayers' Union ($23,033) - a total of $135,733. Other big beneficiaries of election spending included NZME, which owns the New Zealand Herald, and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.

Election advertising from the Council of Trade Unions

Advertisements from the Council of Trade Union's campaign Photo: Composite image from screenshots

Policy losers

The left-wing Council of Trade Unions (CTU) spent $299,344 on newspaper, billboard and online ads attacking National Party leader Christopher Luxon as out of touch.

"The policy decisions of his government since the election, including a new policy to cut the minimum wage in real terms, have proven that highlighting those risks was warranted," a spokesperson said.

When it launched the campaign, the CTU said it planned to fight National's policies to abolish Fair Pay agreements and reinstate 90-day trials for workers. Both of these are included in National's 100-day plan. The union said it had not decided whether it would launch another expensive campaign for the 2026 election.

Facebook advertising for Better NZ Trust and Motor Trade Association stance on the Clean Car Discount.

Left: A Better NZ Trust Facebook ad promoting the retention of the clean car discount. Right: A Motor Trade Association Facebook ad suggesting the discount be phased out. Photo: Composite image from screenshots

The Better NZ Trust campaigned for the clean car discount to be retained. It spent $266,000 on billboards, posters, a website and social media highlighting the likely loss of the clean car discount if National and ACT formed a coalition.

Trustee Kathryn Trounson said she was appalled the discount had now been axed, despite the evidence the trust promoted during the campaign. "We had no influence on the government, but you don't know until you try, do you?"

The trust was labelled a "sock puppet" by The Taxpayers' Union during the election campaign, as it lists the government agency - Energy Efficiency & Conservation Authority (EECA) - as a supporter. Trounson said EECA provided The Better NZ Trust with funding from 2017 to 2020 and no funds from EECA were used to pay for election advertising.

Smaller spenders

A number of other groups ran campaigns but did not declare more than $100,000 in spending.

The Motor Trade Association, which said prior to the election it anticipated spending between $50,000 and $100,000, campaigned on phasing out the clean car discount, sometimes referred to as the "ute tax", and deferring the clean car standard. The clean car discount ended on 31 December but the clean car standard remains in place.

The Natural Health Alliance encouraged voters to choose NZ First to get the Therapeutic Products Act repealed. It ran several full-page advertisements in the New Zealand Herald. Chairperson Paddy Fahy indicated these cost close to $10,000 each.

Repealing the Act formed part of National's coalition agreements with NZ First and ACT and is included in the government's 100-day plan.

This win was shared in part with the SB Group, which also ran ads promoting a vote for NZ First if voters wanted the Therapeutic Products Act be repealed with the message: "Vote for freedom of choice. Party vote New Zealand First."

Other advertisements from the SB Group openly supported NZ First's Northland candidate Shane Jones. A full-page advertisement in the Northern Advocate pushed people to a votewise.nz website which encouraged voters to choose Jones. The Electoral Commission confirmed it received a complaint about the site, which was changed to require a password to enter.

Former journalist and lobbyist Glenn Inwood is the authorised representative for the group on details submitted to the Electoral Commission. Inwood has attended anti-vaccine 'freedom movement' events and is behind the right-wing group Resistance Kiwi. RNZ's emails to the SB Group have gone unanswered.

Jim Grenon, another publicity-shy promoter, did not submit a return. Business Desk reported Grenon is linked to the NZ News Essentials website, which posted numerous stories critical of the Labour-led government's policies. Grenon is a Canadian private equity tycoon, who made headlines in Canada when he shifted $68.2m to New Zealand while involved in court action with Canada's tax agency.

Screenshot from votewise website before it was password protected.

Screenshot from votewise website before it was password protected. Photo: Screenshot

Where does the money come from?

Political parties need to reveal the identity of large donors, but the same rule does not apply to third-party promoters.

Victoria University of Wellington's Max Rashbrooke told RNZ last year that this was a loophole in the country's election rules. "There is the potential, increasingly in the future, for a large amount of dark money to be pushed in to attack ads and campaigns that are obviously aimed at swaying the election in a certain direction."

The maximum a third-party promoter can spend is $391,000. If the promoter endorses a party or candidate, it must seek written permission from them and the money it spends is counted toward the party or candidate's spending limit ($1.3m for each party and $32,600 for each candidate). Attack advertising does not fall into party or candidate caps provided there is no endorsement.

Electoral Commission legal and policy manager Kristina Temel said third-party promoters largely followed the rules in the 2023 election. The Commission received enquiries or complaints about six registered promoters, most of which were quickly resolved, she said.

One case, involving the distribution of material without a promoter statement, was referred to police.