Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Farcical donation law the real villain

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

John Key can sleep soundly. The police Electoral Tricks Squad has cleared his one-man support puppet, Act leader John Banks, of falsifying his 2010 Auckland mayoral campaign expenditure returns. It was the campaign "treasurer" wot done it!

The police report doesn't indicate if that poor unnamed mug has been taken in for another turn of the thumbscrews. What it does say is Mr Banks is off the hook.

No doubt it's all been done by the book, but what a farcical book of rules we're talking about.

Under the Local Electoral Act, a candidate must declare any donation over $1000, including the name of the donor if known. The complaint in this case was that Mr Banks knowingly received $50,000 from internet millionaire Kim Dotcom, $15,000 from SkyCity Casino, and radio advertising worth $15,690, but declared all three gifts as "anonymous" in his return.

The police investigation "established" that Mr Banks met the SkyCity chief executive on May 24, 2010, and "received a sealed envelope containing a $15,000 cheque written out to 'Team Banksie 2010'."

Then in June, he "personally solicited a donation" from Mr Dotcom, who subsequently paid two $25,000 donations into Team Banksie's account. Finally, in September, Mr Banks "personally solicited" help from another unnamed donor who agreed to fund some radio advertising.

Each of these donations was listed as anonymous on the return, which was "compiled by a campaign volunteer" and then signed by the candidate.

Mr Banks "sought and received confirmation that it was an accurate return of his expenses before signing and transmitting the return", says the report, and the police were "unable to establish that Mr Banks had the necessary knowledge that the donation[s] had been recorded as anonymous ..." So, Not Guilty.

I can't get too worked up about Mr Banks wriggling off the hook. He was playing by the rules of a badly flawed system. In all, $520,086 of his $948,937 funding was declared "anonymous". His successful rival, Len Brown, recorded $499,000 of his $581,900 haul as "anonymous".

It beggars belief that big donors to the inaugural mayoral campaign for the Super City didn't make sure that the person they were backing knew exactly how generous they had been, and what their priorities were.

If I'm making the process sound mercenary, that's because it is.

Mark Hanna, the father of American presidential campaigning, summed it up a century ago when asked what was important in politics. He said: "There are two things. The first is money and I can't remember the second."

In democracies like ours, the ongoing battle is to keep this flow of money to politicians transparent and in check. Invercargill City Council byelection candidate Allan Arnold was reminded of this last week, when ordered to remove his offer on Facebook of mulled wine for all those who voted for him.

A cup of wine, a $50,000 donation - it's all part of the same game. At least the wine "bribe" was out in the open.

After expat millionaire Owen Glenn revealed embarrassing details of his "anonymous" donations to both Labour and Winston Peters back in 2008, our parliamentarians reluctantly legislated to outlaw all but the most modest of anonymous donations.

Local government politicians escaped that blast of revealing fresh air.

After Kim Dotcom's revelations this year about his gift to the Banks campaign , the Government promised to update local election legislation and "bring the two regimes together". It said it was just a matter of finding a gap in a busy legislative programme, but was aiming for later this year.

The police decision this week to finger the "volunteer" and not the politician should be the nudge it needs.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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