Corruption and Party Funding
Sometimes seemingly small things become tipping points for governments. Robert Muldoon made hay in the 1975 campaign with the then Labour government's decision to change the Health Regulations to ban cats from dairies. He made "poor pussy" appear the ultimate victim of an inept administration. The $446,000 of taxpayers' money that Labour's "till-ticklers" (Jim Hopkins' term) took to fund the election pledge card is fanning a whiff of sleaze around this ministry that Helen Clark may have difficulty blowing away. The money should have been repaid long ago. Her attempts to throw the scent, blame others, then biff an assortment of smelly red herrings like the Brethren's pamphlets into the debate, reflect badly on her. Adding to the corrupt practices revealed in the Philip Field report, but cavalierly batted away, an unpleasant odour could linger around this ministry until it is consigned to the dustbin of history.
Having said this, it is time people recognised that funding democracy is a serious problem everywhere in the world. Campaign costs are now so high that forms of public funding exist in Australia, Germany, Canada and the United States. The difference between New Zealand's and elsewhere is that our system is much less transparent, and, therefore, more open to abuse.
When I first joined the Labour Party in 1959, most of its funds came from the unions that had formed it. The introduction of compulsory unionism in 1936 carried with it an implied understanding that some of their greater revenue would flow into party coffers. But many unions were badly run; some didn't collect all their dues. The arrival of TV in 1960 steeply pushed up the cost of advertising; income didn't cover bills. By the early 1970s the need for public funding was being openly debated. Initially, the National party loftily brushed the idea away, knowing that their much larger membership plus donations from business beneficiaries of regulations and import licensing gave them a funding edge. Both major parties, however, started levying electorate organisations. Labour tithes its MPs. I'm told they now pay somewhere around $3,000 each per annum.
In the meantime, both parties contrived to pass more costs to the taxpayer. The frequency of MPs' constituency newsletters stepped up; so long as they didn't solicit money, parliamentary postage was paid. Today, ministers mail out in bulk the most blatant propaganda. Some ministerial office staff are expected to campaign for the party. Public funding for election broadcasts began years ago. Then money to parties according to the number of MPs they got elected. Recent immigrants are recruited to the Labour Party and hold fund-raising auctions as a kind of thank you, but raffles, housie evenings and flea markets that bankrolled electorates in my days languish. Now there are new ruses to tickle the taxpayers' till. I'm told that some government funded union programmes totalling more than $4 million since the middle of 2000 result in money and organising work for Labour. These days the party seems to keep a seat or two warm for union organisers to encourage cooperation. Cute system? Some would call it corrupt. I wouldn't be surprised if the $11 million Buy NZ Campaign has unspecified political price tags too. A knowledgeable friend tells me that much publicly-funded Maori broadcasting money, and other state grants to Maori, go into political activity. That gives Labour and the Maori Party much paid political work that isn't counted as election expenditure.
The opportunities for petty corruption have expanded in recent times. Someone should investigate. Philip Field was only the tip of an iceberg. MMP empowers unelected party functionaries, and it requires sweet deals between parties. The fallout will get worse if we don't devise rigorously transparent ways to finance the democratic process, and then enforce the rules. An annual grant to parties based on the number of votes received at the last election is the most widely used system abroad. But the quid pro quo for receiving any state money at all must be democratic constitutions and candidate selections. I doubt National's would pass muster; New Zealand First's and Labour's certainly wouldn't. Careful public auditing of parties' and unions' accounts; an end to backdoor methods of funding; and strict enforcement of spending rules are needed. Old methods of fund raising can't suffice now. But when you are caught red handed with $446,000 - or is it $800,000? of public money, it must be repaid or the smell could engulf this government.