“For a quarter of a million pounds, that had better be one fucking hell of a dinner! If it’s not unicorn, you’d better be eating roast swan that’s been wrestled to death in a pit in front of you by the Queen herself.”
-John Oliver, on the ‘Downing Street Dinners’ scandal.
Both receiving conditional donations beforehand – like the donation-only anonymous dinners at Antoine’s Restaurant in Parnell or a Cabinet Club event – or after like with Oravida are two sides of the same coin. Both technically legal but raise significant ethical concerns over the role of money and access in politics.
The revelations over National Party practices are part of a global trend in political party funding networks. This week, Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey was revealed to be involved with the North Sydney Forum, a Hockey supporters network which includes a $22,000 per head special membership rate that includes private lunches and audiences with Hockey. The membership includes corporate board members, lobbyists, and long time Liberal Party donor/ operatives. This week, the Liberal Party is hosting a budget breakfast fundraiser in the Parliament building, to be attended by Tony Abbott and senior cabinet members for the price of $11,000 per head entry – just below the $12,000 limit for anonymous donors. This isn’t limited to the Liberals: the Labor Party in New South Wales has begun offering fundraising options between $5,000 to $15,000 to attend lunches, briefings and drinks with senior shadow cabinet ministers and leader Bill Shorten.
The worst case was in 2012, when the UK Conservative Party were revealed to have the Leaders Group program, where for £50,000, “Members are invited to join David Cameron and other senior figures from the Conservative Party at dinners, post-PMQ lunches, drinks receptions, election result events and important campaign launches.” The website also makes mention of other annual club memberships ranging from £2,000 local association networks and upwards.
These developments are rooted in the needs of modern political machines in a state of perpetual election campaign mode. A modern party is a professional one: head office staffers, external consultants and services including opinion polling, focus groups and advertising, events, and regional party organisations and networks. Not to mention the pressures of a political reporting approach more tailored towards ‘winners and losers’ and ‘who won the week.’ Political parties need to be at a war room footing to plan for the day, the week, and the next three years.
Despite that New Zealand parties are dependent on Parliamentary Services for the majority of their finances, perhaps we’ve passed the threshold of this balance being financially sustainable.
The needs of the political party machine and the media cycle incentivise political parties to actively pursue more and larger donations. Given that political party membership bases in Western democracies have fallen dramatically and insufficient to fund modern political machines, this means pursuing larger donors. Labour under Presidents Jim Anderton in the 1970’s and 80’s, Bob Harvey in the late 1990s, and Mike Williams in roles from chief fundraiser in the early 80’s to President under Helen Clark pioneered soliciting corporate donations. Williams especially acted a conduit between corporates and cabinet using more subtle methods such as arranging meetings between Clark cabinet ministers and then calling up for donations, as well as engaging corporates to communicate policy concerns to cabinet.
The events at Antoine’s Restaurant and existence of Cabinet Club reflect that National has institutionalised what Labour did informally. As a conservative party more open to a free market business model that implicitly and explicitly favours larger corporate interests, as well as being the incumbents, this has been a natural transition. National politicians could justify mutual interest between business and party philosophy, which is to an extent true. Yet given the financial weight of those donors representing corporates, those on corporate boards, or simply wealthy individuals, they would be more likely favoured over small business or regional business donors. This is likely to favour a free market environment dominated by monopoly and oligopoly corporate concerns: lower top income tax and corporate tax, less regulation especially on consumer regulation and the environment, and weak labour laws.
Consider the registered list of combined donations over $30,000 since January 2011, which certainly in favour of National, but with Labour also receiving corporate donors. National’s list is far larger, and containing notables including Bruce Plested of Mainfreight, the argriculture company Gallagher Group, Oravida, City Financial, Susan Chou (linked to Crafar Farms), and ‘Antoine’s Restaurant’ as the combined total of the infamous fundraising dinner. Labour has received little but since the 1980s has regularly received donations from corporates donating to both major parties.
The ethical question posed by the challenges to both National and Labour is the extent of influence private access can gain. This topic has been covered in an excellent NPR report for Planet Money, ‘Take the Money and Run for Office’, on the impact of money in American politics. From former Rep Barney Frank:
“People say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t have any effect on me,'” he says. “Well if that were the case, we’d be the only human beings in the history of the world who on a regular basis took significant amounts of money from perfect strangers and made sure that it had no effect on our behavior.”
Yet, Frank also says money isn’t evening, claiming “If the voters have a position, the voters will kick money’s rear end every time.”
To an extent, this is true: politicians claim strong personal principles and philosophy on politics and governance. But politicians are ultimately at the mercy of their parties for electorate selections, list rankings, so would tow the line if asked.
The NPR concludes that this type of fundraising is about access. According to the report, a least ¾ of all money fundraised is at breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and receptions, where access is paid and space for credit card numbers are commonly included on forms.
“Fundraisers and campaign contributions don’t buy votes, for the most part. But they buy access — they get contributors in the door to make their case in front of the lawmaker or his staff. And that can make all the difference.”
Certainly, New Zealand politics is not as dependent on lobbyist and third party money as America, but paid access to Government Ministers brings a candidness and direct influence is far beyond that of the ordinary citizen – even in a country where you can easily spot a cabinet minister in the supermarket. We don’t know what goes on, but the results of such financial benefits are obvious. Think Owen Glenn and Labour or the relationship between Maurice Williamson and Donghua Liu. Interestingly, Labour has the potential to gain power in this year’s election, and Oravida and Cabinet club allegations will no doubt play a significant part in this. But to gain and sustain power, they will need more fundraising revenue and there will be more willing donors open to an incumbent government. This isn’t simply a problem of one or two political parties, but one of the needs of professional political machines. The institutionalisation of privileged access reinforces the division between colluding elites and the public.