Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Cash donors have expectations

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It’s not easy to hold back a tsunami of disbelief that the money doesn’t buy influence among politicians.

Auckland business people will not be all that surprised that the courts have finally punctured the facade that surrounds donations to local body politicians.

Justice Wylie's judgment on the former Mayor of Auckland John Banks exposes how the politician solicited support directly (and following from that donations) for his 2010 election campaign.

Business people have been directly hit up over the years to support campaigns by key politicians for election to public office. Not just Banks within Auckland. But also current mayor Len Brown, who managed to impress enough donors - primarily from business - to kick in $581,900.95 in donations to back him against Banks for the 2010 mayoral contest.

Business people will have been treated to the absurd platitude that it's all about "supporting democracy" from various bagmen; or have used similar words themselves when justifying why their company or organisation has donated to a particular politician's campaign.

Others will simply be out to buy influence. And quite open about it too by being very direct indeed that they support a particular politician because their policies will be good for business - particularly theirs.

Many simply believe a particular candidate is the best bet for Auckland's progress.

Kim Dotcom may genuinely have felt Banks was a good guy who deserved to be elected the first Super City mayor. He offered to help him out with a social media campaign. Dotcom ultimately went along with the charade which resulted in his two $25,000 donations being made anonymously.

If the German businessman had made the donations directly - and under his own name as he has always maintained was his preference - there would inevitably have been questions about why this relative newcomer to Auckland had kicked $50,000 into the Team Banksie campaign.

It's notable that Dotcom believed a payback was entailed as a result of the $50,000 donation: Banks' support for his push to be a New Zealand resident. He clearly also did not want to be ignored by Banks when he was tossed into jail after the police raid on his rented Coatesville mansion as part of an extradition attempt by United States authorities to bring him to justice for alleged copyright infringements on a grand scale.

Others make their donations anonymously to avoid disclosure.

This was the case with Brown in 2010 where $499,000 of his $581,900.95 war chest was donated through the New Auckland Council Trust.

Brown has never disclosed the identities of those who kicked in half a million dollars to the 2010 campaign. Or those who contributed a significant amount anonymously to his successful 2013 re-election campaign before the disclosure rules changed.

But it's high time Aucklanders knew what expectations those major donors had when they decided to back Brown. How many property developers, for instance, gave to Brown's war chest after a series of meetings at Tony Astle's Antoines restaurant in Parnell?

Are any of them among the passing parade now putting up "cash for property" deals directly to the Auckland mayor and Auckland Council? Why are these deals being justified as necessary to find funds to progress the Inner City Rail Loop, when it would be just as easy to sell a few shares in other council-owned companies?

Is the council exploring all the options openly or being bulldozed?

I'm not against all of these deals. Some will be pragmatic. Some which have been prematurely leaked verge on simply being crass.

But my sense is that in the absence of knowing just who Brown's backers are - or a council with the wit to ask penetrating questions of promoters - the mayor should recuse himself from such multimillion-dollar decisions.

That's because, as we now comprehensively know from the Banks trial, donors do have expectations.

Justice Wylie's judgment is also notable for the light it sheds on SkyCity's relationship with Brown. SkyCity had not previously donated to an Auckland mayoral campaign. But in 2010, Brown's campaign team approached the casino company for a donation.

SkyCity's board and CEO Nigel Morrison agreed to make the donation and one of a similar size to Banks. SkyCity did not want either of the two $15,000 donations to be made anonymously.

The Banks saga is still to finally play out. But what is notable is that Brown - who was publicly perceived to be concerned about the social cost of casinos - was quite prepared to have his campaign team pursue SkyCity for a donation.

As the EY inquiry disclosed, Brown benefited from free nights at the casino operator's hotel. Brown also gave his support to the Government's "pokies for convention centre" deal with SkyCity.

It's not easy to hold back a tsunami of disbelief that donor cash doesn't buy influence when looking at the sequence of events.

I've questioned before why Brown wanted to take power off the Council Controlled Organisations and centralise it in the mayor's office. There are some good commercial brains on the boards of the CCOs. But they have been subject to too much dictate from the centre.

At a national level, Labour's Andrew Little was right on the button with his call for an independent inquiry into the police decision not to prosecute Banks. But Little shouldn't stop there. The bigger question - which far outweighs Banks' transgressions - is why the police didn't file a legal prosecution against Labour Party identities after Labour raided parliamentary funds to back its 2005 campaign for re-election.

That question still remains.

Banks has paid a price for a crime which is substantially less than that committed by the country's then ruling party.

- NZ Herald

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