Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political roundup: Money talks in politics

When "money talks" in politics, what does it say? The personal and political finances of politicians have been under scrutiny in the last few days, and many have concluded that money does indeed have an impact on what politicians do.
Sitting pretty: The Herald has previously found that National MP Ia McKelvie has millions in property. Photo / File
Sitting pretty: The Herald has previously found that National MP Ia McKelvie has millions in property. Photo / File

There's never been such strong public interest in the financial affairs of politicians and their parties. Over recent years the clamour to know how political parties are raising their funds and what MPs own financial situations are, has been increasing. This is for good reason - the public rightly suspects that "money talks" and has an influence.

So when this week the MPs' Pecuniary Interests register was published there was significant interest in the details of what property politicians own, and what gifts they've received over the last year.

Gifts to politicians

There's a natural tendency to be suspicious of any significant gifts made to politicians. We immediately wonder if these gifts are really bribes. After all, why would someone give something of value to a politician without some thought as to how this might create an advantage for the benefactor?

Hence, last night TVNZ's Andrea Vance made much of a gift declared by Steven Joyce, which could be seen as a vested interest "buying" a politician, or at least trying to influence them - see: Mining company paid for Steven Joyce's $2k helicopter ride over proposed mine site.

Other media gave a good rundown on what gifts were declared.

For instance, Newswire focused on some of the more interesting donations to MPs: "National cabinet minister Judith Collins' list reveals her diverse interest, including tickets to a philharmonic orchestra, rugby, boxing, tennis and Coldplay. Labour's Kelvin Davis took a hunting trip, National's Chris Bishop accepted labour of an office renovation and his colleague Maggie Barry accepted a Chinese scroll" - see: Our MPs own nearly 400 properties as well as shares in Maori land.

According to Nicholas Jones and Isaac Davison, "The companies which appeared to be the most active in wooing MPs were Sky City, Lion Breweries, and the New Zealand Rugby Union, which offered numerous politicians free tickets to events or gifts" - see: MPs' latest home ownership, interests revealed.

See also Stacey Kirk's John Key and David Cunliffe escape scrutiny over pecuniary interests, which includes further details of gifts, and notes that: "Justice Minister Amy Adams received a handbag from the Maggie Barry Dinner Club - Barry's office has not yet responded to questions over what that is."

MP property ownership driving complacency

Although there will always be suspicion that the gifts provided to MPs will act as bribes, there is another area of political finance that appears to be even more controversial. Politicians' assets are also included in the MPs' Pecuniary Interests register released this week.

It seems that our MPs are heavy property investors, which raises questions about whether MPs with a significant investment in housing might actually be personally advantaged by the affordable "housing crisis", and therefore less motivated to work to bring house prices down.

For the best item dealing with the multiple properties of various politicians, see Stacey Kirk and Andy Fyers' article, The many houses of our MPs - which MPs have a stake in multiple properties?.

Kirk and Fyers say: "MPs are making a killing buying up large in New Zealand's overheated property market. Their penchant for property investment has been laid bare in the latest publication of MPs' Pecuniary Interests - registering a 52 per cent leap in the number of properties our elected representatives declared an ownership stake since 2008. Between them, 116 of our MPs own or have an interest in 302 properties and more than three quarters boast a portfolio of anywhere between two and 12 properties."

The article provides plenty of useful information about the MPs and parties who own property. For example, they reveal which parties have the biggest property portfolios: "National Party MPs are the biggest property owners, with interests in 190 properties, an average of 3.43 per MP. Labour Party MPs have a stake in 58, an average of 1.93 each. For NZ First's MPs it's 21 properties - 1.91 each - and the Greens' 14-strong caucus holds a collective cache of 20 properties."

And in terms of Cabinet ministers, the article says "The Ministers sitting around the Cabinet table - on occasion turning their minds to the issue of soaring house prices in New Zealand - have even higher rates of property ownership. On average, they each have a stake in 3.85 properties."

So, are politicians who are doing well out of the property boom really disinclined to solve the housing crisis? Two MPs from very different ends of the political spectrum spoke out yesterday to say that this is indeed happening. Greens co-leader James Shaw and Act leader David Seymour - neither of whom personally own homes - went on RNZ's Morning Report and argued that other politicians were watering down policies meant to fix the housing crisis simply because such policies might actually harm their own interests. You can listen to the seven-minute interview here: Seymour & Shaw don't own their own home - but most other MPs do.

The Act Party leader says in the interview: "The fact that the average National MP owns 2.2 properties of their own might suggest why they've spent a lot of time introducing solutions that you'd almost suspect weren't supposed to work - because they certainly haven't".

Shaw added: "The fact that the vast majority of our members of Parliament own multiple properties is quite a good signal for why there isn't a capital gains tax in this country. There's very little appetite amongst the National caucus for a proper capital gains tax." See also, RNZ's Homeowners in da House: Government MPs' property ownership revealed.

Incomplete, but damning information

Some articles about this week's disclosure of MP finances stressed that much of the information released is incomplete. For example, Barry Soper explains the problem: "The Pecuniary Interests Register's published every year and it tallies up what the politicians own and where their financial interests are, just to keep them above board when it comes to passing laws on behalf of us all and not on behalf of themselves. Well that's the intention but the problem is that their assets are all trussed up in Trusts and getting a look into those is about as easy as having a squizz inside the head of Winston Peters during coalition negotiations after an election" - see: Most of our politicians well heeled lot.

Nicholas Jones and Isaac Davison elaborate: "The register does not give a complete picture of property ownership or the scale of MPs' interests, because they can declare multiple titles or blocks of land under a single entry. National MP Ian McKelvie, for example, declared four properties in the 2017 register - a family home, farm land, commercial property, and an apartment. The Herald has previously found that he owns more than 3200 acres of land spread across 53 legal titles, worth a total of $68m" - see: MPs' latest home ownership, interests revealed.

Furthermore, recently-departed MPs do not have their information released, although that may well change - see Stacey Kirk's John Key and David Cunliffe escape scrutiny over pecuniary interests.

Nonetheless, the information released does show how narrow the socio-economic status of MPs is, and therefore how disconnected they are from the public. The No Right Turn blog highlights the lack of financial diversity in modern politics: "Where once upon a time we had a monoculture of drunk old white men, we now have a diversity of representation: women, Maori, Pacific peoples, New Zealand Chinese and Indian. While there is still scope for improvement, particularly around gender and age, our Parliament reflects the population far better than it once did. Except in one area: wealth" - see: An unrepresentative Parliament.

The blog also suggests that these financial differences mean MPs are rather divorced from the realities of real life: "Its no wonder that they seem divorced from the reality of the housing crisis - they're the pricks profiting from it! Throw in their (deservedly) high salaries and the fact that they're showered with gifts (AKA bribes), and our "representatives" are living in a completely different world from the rest of us. One where things are fine, thanks, and the biggest problem is working out how to hide your conflicts of interest in a trust. Not very representative, is it?"

Finally, today's editorial in The Press makes these points very well, arguing "We like our MPs to both represent and resemble us. And political parties like to trumpet a candidate's real world experience in an effort to show they are one of us. But with a backbench MP earning more than $160,000 in base salary, putting them comfortably in the top 5 per cent of earners, that resemblance does not reach far down the income ladder" - see: MPs' high rate of home ownership puts them at odds with a third of Kiwis. The editorial says that as "the disparities in both income and home ownership rates widen between MPs and those they represent, we risk representation that is out of touch with the day-to-day realities of most Kiwis." It concludes: "We can't expect effective and humane policy if the political elite have little experience of how the rest of us live."

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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