It’s been an embarrassing week to be a New Zealander. Our semi-transparent democratic veil has been ripped away to reveal our political system in all its awfulness, bared to the world by Winston Peters.
He has railed against undisclosed big business donations to political parties for decades but like the American televangelists who rant about immorality from their moral soapboxes before being caught in brothels with their pants down, Winston has painted for us a naked self-portrait.
Two weeks ago questions were raised about a donation to New Zealand First from billionaire Owen Glenn. For six months Peters has denied any such donation exists but was finally forced to reveal his lawyer had received $100,000 from Glenn to help pay for the 2005 Tauranga electoral petition Peters launched after losing the seat to National’s Bob Clarkson.
Now multi-millionaire (or is it billionaire?) Bob Jones has revealed he made a donation of $25,000 to New Zealand First in 2005 after having been asked by Peters for a contribution. (Jones had previously given $150,000 to New Zealand First) Not only does this undermine Peter’s criticism of big business donations and the political influence which goes with them, but the money was laundered through a trust account and not declared as a donation despite electoral rules requiring donors of more than $10,000 to be named.
For many years Peters has angrily declared arrangements like these to be political corruption. He was right but while pointing the finger at others channelling secret donations through unaccountable trusts he himself has been gorging quietly from the same trough. His personal commitment to openness and transparency with political donations is as hollow as National or Labour.
Whatever the outcome for Peters and his party we should all be deeply worried at the wider issue of undue influence in the political process by wealthy business interests.
Prime Minister Helen Clark says the problem will remain until there is political acceptance of public funding for political party campaigning. I think she’s right. It is far better for election campaigning to be conducted in the open via tightly controlled public budgets than persisting with current arrangements which throw political parties into the hands of unsavoury wealthy individuals and corporate interests.
Once upon a time election campaigns were waged with fundraising from cake stalls and garage sales. But modern political campaigning requires much bigger money and can’t be waged on the proceeds of cake stalls. So where to go for funding? Our major political parties know precisely where – wealthy individuals and big business interests.
Labour and National both agree on this. However they make the fatuous claim that there is a wall between the party organisation and the politicians. They claim politicians are not told who the big donors are and this therefore prevents moneyed individuals having undue influence on policy development. They say the golden rule (those that have the gold make the rules) does not apply. But this claim is simply not credible.
In the lead-up to the 2005 election Don Brash, as leader of National, organised dinner occasions for wealthy individuals the party was lining up to make big donations. Don’t tell me Brash was unaware who were National’s big donors and what policies they wanted National to adopt. Labour does the same or similar. Winston Peters certainly did. Peters asked Bob Jones a number of times to donate and Jones obliged.
In his argumentative way Peters will no doubt claim there is a difference between asking for a donation and actually knowing whether or not a donation has been received but this is semantics. All party politicians will know who their major donors are even if there is no explicit paper trail to prove it.
Bob Jones described the relationship this week as a donation in return for the opportunity to give some policy advice. There is a wide gap to read between the lines of that comment.
From 1984 to 1996 there were five governments elected, two Labour and three National, which were captured by big business interests to a greater extent than most previous elections. The extreme right wing economic policies followed by both Labour and National through this period reflected the complete dominance of big business interests in funding both parties and in the development of policy.
The same occurs in all market-dominated societies where a cosy alliance exists between wealth and politicians who know which side their bread is buttered on. It is destroying democratic values.
Do we care? Or would we prefer to just let the Exclusive Brethren, the Business Roundtable and our bought-and-sold politicians just keep on doing us over?