David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

John Key's secret flag donor luncheon

John Key was guest of honour at the lunch, held in a private room at a Karangahape Rd Chinese restaurant. Photo / Greg Bowker
John Key was guest of honour at the lunch, held in a private room at a Karangahape Rd Chinese restaurant. Photo / Greg Bowker

Prime Minister John Key was the star guest at a private fundraising lunch for the Change the Flag lobby group in a last-ditch bid to raise cash from wealthy Chinese donors who supported a flag change.

The exclusive meeting with no more than six donors took place in a private room of an Auckland Chinese restaurant. Other guests included National Party president Peter Goodfellow, Cabinet minister Nikki Kaye and National MP Dr Jian Yang.

Funds raised at the February 18 lunch allowed the lobby group to fund a last-minute push for votes, including a pamphlet to 500,000 homes just days before voting started on March 3.

Voting ended on March 24 with 56.6 per cent of those who cast a ballot backing the current flag and the challenger - supported by Mr Key - getting 43.2 per cent of the vote.

Mr Key has previously been to fundraisers where his presence has been the main attraction. MP Jami-Lee Ross received $25,000 for his election campaign in Botany after he and the PM attended a dinner at the home of businessman Donghua Liu.

The money was returned after the 2014 election.

Documents obtained through the Official Information Act show the Prime Minister's office was approached by Change the Flag chairman Lewis Holden - a former National Party candidate - seeking Mr Key's attendance. The documents show it was the second of two fundraisers Mr Key attended for the Change the Flag campaign.

The first was an event in late January for about 20 guests, promoted publicly and held in Parnell at the offices of luxury property developer Williams Land, about 500 metres from Mr Key's home.

But the second was not publicly advertised and was for the select, small group. The "event information sheet" recorded by the PM's office shows "5-6 donors" expected and said the lunch would be held at a "single table in a private room" at the Paradish in Karangahape Rd.

Mr Holden confirmed the event to the Weekend Herald but would not say who the donors were or how much they gave. He said a little more than $100,000 was raised for the entire Change the Flag campaign - some from the Chinese donors, who wanted the Union Jack gone from the New Zealand ensign.

"We talked about the treaties the British signed with the Chinese, the Boxer Rebellion, all those sort of points of Chinese history. It's interesting because that sort of thing still comes out. Obviously, the colonisation of Hong Kong.

"All of those things are very recent problems to the Chinese community. To us it's like a while back. One of them commented that the Chinese civilisation has been around for thousands of years so the memory of those things is quite recent."

The Boxer Rebellion was an anti-foreign and anti-Christian uprising between 1899 and 1901 which the British military took a key role in suppressing. It followed the 1842 colonisation of Hong Kong and the 1899 expansion into the New Territories.

"We knew there was support in the Chinese community because of the Union Jack," Mr Holden said.

The PM was keen on the Kyle Lockwood design. Photo / Getty Images
The PM was keen on the Kyle Lockwood design. Photo / Getty Images

He said the donors present at the February 18 lunch were "people who were keen on supporting us in the flag campaign. We put it together on the basis we get donations from them for the campaign."

Mr Holden said the Change the Flag campaign benefited from Mr Key's presence at the earlier fundraiser because his signature on flags boosted their auction value.

"The reason for getting him involved was obviously his position on the flag and the fact he was a supporter and happy to do it. I was pretty surprised that he agreed to do it but he did and that was great."

Mr Holden said the campaign needed money to fund the push for change, including paying for the video of prominent people supporting the cause. He said the events Mr Key attended allowed it to send a pamphlet to 500,000 homes around the country.

"The thing about politics is you always need money. That's the necessary evil of the democratic process - money plays a part. The Prime Minister was a strong supporter of change so we will leverage that.

"Democratic processes are costly. The more democratic they are then the more costly they are."

Mr Key would not be interviewed on the issue and neither would Mr Goodfellow nor Ms Kaye.

Dr Yang said: "I'm sorry I can't comment on that. I don't think it's proper for me to comment on it at the moment."

A spokeswoman for Mr Key said: "The Prime Minister was invited to attend the event and, given his support for changing the flag, was happy to attend."

The spokeswoman would not say whether donations were made to the National Party at the event and referred questions on donors to Mr Goodfellow. She said the event itself was "not a fundraiser for the National Party".

Mr Goodfellow issued a statement that said the National Party complied with legal obligations to disclose donors, but he did not say whether it had also picked up donations at the lunch.

The statement said: "I attended a fundraising event in support of the change the flag campaign in February. This was an event organised by Change the Flag, and my attendance at the meeting reflected my personal views in favour of a change of flag. It was not a National Party event."

And Ms Kaye, through a spokesman, said: "I have always been very open about the fact that I was personally supportive of a change of flag."

She said she was invited to the event by Mr Holden.

It's the latest example of the Prime Minister using his star power to attract funds for causes that support his endeavours - the flag referendum saw Mr Key throw his support behind the unsuccessful alternative.

Last week, the Weekend Herald revealed that Mr Key had sent texts to former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw and teammate Dan Carter asking them to watch his video promoting a flag change.

Labour Party leader Andrew Little said the private lunch "looked pretty murky ... Clearly the Prime Minister's presence is the selling point."

He said clear assurances were needed that the National Party hadn't benefited from the lunch.

"Whether or not they were raising money for the flag campaign, it does look like a National Party event.

"It looks like a National Party project."

- NZ Herald

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