Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Is this any way to run a democracy?

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Once again the democratic process has been diverted by a large donation to a single candidate.

At a Chinese community fund-raising event for Auckland mayoral front runner,
Phil Goff, an anonymous phone bidder paid $150,000 for a signed copy of a book, The Governance of China, by the Chinese president. In all, the event raised $250,000, which is around half the candidate's estimated campaign bill.

Goff came out with the usual comments politicians make on such occasions, how he tries to keep such vulgarities as money, at arm's length and arguing that the law that forces all donations over $1500 to be disclosed after an election helps "guarantee that you're unlikely to in any way favour those groups that have contributed."

I'm afraid this is when I, and I suspect most voters, start to roll my eyes. This idea that campaigning politicians are made of sterner stuff than the rest of us, and unlike you and me, can receive a donation of $150,000 from a single individual and be totally unaffected by the generosity defies belief.

Money does talk when waved about in these amounts, even if the politicians try to ignore it. Ask 2010 Auckland mayoral candidate, John Banks. He got into all sorts of problems for ignoring the cries of internet millionaire Kim Dotcom - donor of $50,000 - for help from the depths of Mt Eden Prison.

Dotcom had been tossed into jail after the FBI-triggered raid on his mansion, and wanted a friendly ear and a soft mattress for his bad back. The ensuing court cases over whether the donation was anonymous or not, rumbled on long afterwards.

The incident highlights one of the issues with donors of large amounts. Even if they don't crassly itemise what they want in return for their cash, they do expect at the very least, access to the seat of power in times of need.

One of the repercussions of the Dotcom-Banks incident was a law change in 2013, to bring local body political donations rules into line with national politics. The donors of amounts over $1500 have to be disclosed, or the money forfeited.

But the unveiling of names is not necessary until after the election is over, when it's too late for voters to see the sort of company the candidates are keeping.

The fantasy that rich donors - either individuals or groups - just spray their money at the candidate of their choice, then walk away, doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

In national politics, there are many recent examples of the rich, pumping their money into political causes, including Conservative Party's Colin Craig. Act has had several, including Alan Gibbs, John Boscawen and the eccentric anti-Maori Louis Crimp from Invercargill, who weirdly strayed off message on national television to ask interviewer Jane Luscombe if she'd ever had sex against a tree.

I throw in national examples because the Auckland mayoralty race is now of a similar scale. It has become too large and expensive to contest successively, without the financial backing of rich individuals and pressure groups.

In the first Super City mayoral race in 2010, John Banks spent $948,937 on his campaign, and Len Brown, $581,900. In 2013, Brown was re-elected with a campaign budget of $338,584.

Is this any way to run a democracy? The 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System said no, calling for a system of state funding. Its focus was on parliamentary elections. But that was before Auckland was amalgamated into one huge political entity, home to the third of all New Zealanders.

The commissioners warned that "too great a reliance" on outside funders like trade unions, corporations and "donors of substantial wealth" would be "detrimental to our democracy and might . . . lead to corruption of our political process".

They pointed to examples in Europe such as Sweden where the political parties in the 1970s had agreed to refuse private donations in return for public funding.

Political parties "were too important to starve," they said. They were necessary, not just as electoral machines "but also as vehicles through which ideas may be discussed and sound policies developed."

A form of public funding was their proposal to ensure democracy flourished. When you look at the lacklustre masquerade of an election now drawing to an end, you can see their point.

- 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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