Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Wealthy buffoons hold our democracy hostage

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Conservative Party leader Colin Craig. Photo / APN
Conservative Party leader Colin Craig. Photo / APN

National's little Act Party poodle seems to be running scared of the attention-seeking yapping of wannabe Conservative Party lapdog Colin Craig.

In a scathing attack on his rival's tax policy this week, Act leader Jamie Whyte declared it "half-baked" and warned that "voters should steer clear of this man and his party. Politics shouldn't be a game for wealthy buffoons".

As a text for our times, the shunning of wealthy buffoons from our politics will find much support. But coming from the leader of the party that pocketed $125,520 before the last election from prize buffoon and Invercargill accountant-developer Louis Crimp, this advice becomes farcical.

Mr Crimp, you may recall, donated the money after Don Brash seized control of Act. Recalling Dr Brash's notorious 2004 Orewa speech as National Party leader, Mr Crimp was hopeful his cash would ensure his anti-Maori views would be pursued. But in a follow-up interview on TV, the eccentric Mr Crimp soon went off subject and asked interviewer Jane Luscombe whether she'd ever had sex against a tree!

Despite all this, Dr Whyte's party was happy to keep Mr Crimp's cash.

Of course, just who qualifies as a wealthy buffoon is very much in the eye of the beholder. One assumes Dr Whyte excludes the rich capitalists like Alan Gibbs and John Boscawen who, over the years, created and then maintained the party he now leads as their political plaything.

The ongoing soap opera involving Chinese businessman Donghua Liu, in particular the latest chapter about how much he donated to both National and Labour in recent years, highlights how dependent New Zealand politics has become on the charity of random money-bags.

In the past, the situation seemed simpler. On the left was the union-backed and largely union-funded Labour Party. On the right, National, the home of farmers and business. The lines weren't absolute. Labour could rely on the support of the big state house-building firms. And during the years of import licensing, car importers, for example, tended to be grateful to both sides of the political spectrum.

In 1984, this old order went out the door, thanks to millionaire property mogul Bob Jones. He set up the New Zealand Party as a libertarian party targeting a National Party dominated by Rob Muldoon. The subsequent 1986 Royal Commission into the Electoral System estimated the NZ Party spent $700,000 on the 1984 campaign - more than any other party. It spent a further $500,000 setting up the party and an undisclosed amount in each electorate. The result was 12.2 per cent of the popular vote but, because of the first-past-the-post electoral system, not a single MP. Still, it stole enough votes off National to ensure a landslide victory for Labour.

Since then, there's been a small procession of rich men thrusting their spare cash into the political mix. Some claim altruistic motives. Others are more upfront. Labour was one of the first to benefit with a reported $2 million from merchant banker Michael Fay in 1987 in gratitude for the Rogernomics revolution of the previous three years. Unsurprisingly, the parties of the right have been the main beneficiaries, but Owen Glenn's flirtation with both Labour and New Zealand First is a reminder that when seeking power and influence, the rich don't necessarily stick to stereotype.

In this year's election there are two millionaire's vanity parties, the Kim Dotcom-financed ($3 million-plus) Internet-Mana Party, and Colin Craig's Conservatives. The former was set up by Mr Dotcom to bring down the John Key-led National Party, while Mr Craig's only hope is just the reverse. He's craving a little pat on the head from Mr Key, which will indicate to National voters in the East Coast Bays electorate that a vote for Mr Craig is okay. Without this gesture, Mr Craig's money will be - barring a miracle - down the drain.

While Mr Craig waits, with paws crossed, for Mr Key to toss him a bone, Liu must be wondering how he has become the Typhoid Mary of New Zealand politics.

A few weeks ago, veteran National Cabinet minister Maurice Williamson was forced to resign for ringing the police on Liu's behalf seeking a progress report on domestic violence charges. Now, Labour Party leader David Cunliffe's on the ropes for claims by Liu, in a signed statement dated May 3, that he paid "close to $100,000" for wine at a 2007 Labour Party fundraiser. Something of which Labour has no records.

What is confusing is that last Saturday, Liu issued a statement claiming "that over the years I've given equally to governments of both colours". If that's the case, National, which is now baiting Labour over not declaring Liu's generosity, has some explaining of its own to do. Until now it has owned up only to a $22,000 donation in 2012.

All of which is great titillation for the political classes. But it does nothing to enhance the reputation of our democratic system.

It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, at least, to have to accept that our democracy has become dependent on the random largesse of self-serving millionaires - buffoonish or not.

In the Donghua Liu case, both the main parties have ended up looking used. They have only themselves to blame. The 1986 royal commission offered the solution. The public funding of political parties.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

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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