COMMENT:

The National Party donations affair highlights the crying need in New Zealand for an anti-corruption watchdog.

That's the type of investigatory body that in other jurisdictions can probe whether the thin line between legitimate electoral donations — and what is frankly outright influence buying — may have been breached.

Note the emphasis on "may".

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There's been precious little detail on just what the Serious Fraud Office is "investigating" in relation to the National Party donations affair.

The assumption is that a $100,000 figure — initially talked about in discussions involving National Party leader Simon Bridges and businessman Yikun Zhang — was ultimately broken down into smaller amounts under $15,000 and funnelled into party accounts to avoid disclosure of the donors' identities.

Typically, NZ First MP Shane Jones has pledged to dog the SFO and make sure it does its duty.

But there is an awful lot of pure speculation and conjecture at this point. And great reliance on claims by former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross who has his own axe to grind.

After Ross made his sensational allegations against his former leader last year, the National Party itself said it had complied with the relevant electoral laws.

But this week police — who had investigated Ross' complaint — referred the issue on to the Serious Fraud Office.

This appears to be the first time such an issue has ended up on the SFO's plate.

Electoral donations are a grey area. As former United Future leader Peter Dunne said, the rules around election donations are very clear. "If you donate, say instead of one $10,000 donation, nine or 10 $999 donations, each one of those doesn't have to be disclosed. This is a way of getting around that."

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Dunne is correct when he says such actions are rife among political parties. All sorts of stratagems are employed to hide the source of political donations.

These range from expensive dinners where business people pay an exorbitant amount for a "meal" and a chance to hear a politician talk (with the proceeds funnelled via a restaurant to the party), to auctioning off, as fundraisers for Phil Goff's initial mayoral campaign did, a treatise by Xi Jinping on governance that was given away free at the Beijing Apec CEO Summit.

If the SFO does say the National Party has mishandled the donations, it will have a major effect on election fundraising.

But what is more egregious is the insinuation — again from Ross' leaked tapes — that National Party list seats can be bought through making sizeable donations.

Former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross made his sensational allegations against Bridges last year. Photo / File
Former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross made his sensational allegations against Bridges last year. Photo / File

A Trade Me auction which took the mickey out of Bridges on this score was quickly removed from the site.

In essence, Trade Me was used to host a fake auction which offered bidders the opportunity to get someone on to the National Party list.

Trade Me member Finnws offered: "For a small 'donation', you can choose a new member of the National party.

"All proceeds will go to Simon Bridges who will quietly distribute the money as he sees fit."

It was a humorous way of making a serious point.

Another egregious example was the stratagem employed by the Change the Flag lobby group to try to raise cash from wealthy Chinese donors who supported the push to change New Zealand's flag.

Former National Prime Minister John Key was the star guest at a private fundraising lunch with the donors.

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.

In Australia, Greens leader Richard Di Natale has called for reforms to rid democracy of the "corrupting influence" of donations.

His view is that major corporate donations are simply "state-sanctioned bribery".

The biggest problem is the "democratic deficit" resulting from the reality that too often donors expect a return on their investment.

It's the claim that National's leader was not averse to brokering list seats in return for donations which really needs to be looked at.

But that does not seem to be in the SFO's purview.