New Zealand is in danger of following the US down the path of greater inequality and plutocratic governance. This small but distinguished country has a long history of standing up for democratic participation, an egalitarian ethos, and fair play. Yet we face some of the same threats that are unravelling US democratic representation.
The lobbying industry is almost entirely unregulated, as Bryce Edwards has found. The political fundraising of National, Labour and NZ First is unacceptably opaque. Large political donations by corporations and trusts are allowed. The threat to sovereignty and accountability posed by foreign donations isn't taken seriously, as it is in Australia and the US.
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Researchers who wish to document the fundraising base and economic backers of the major parties can't even get a foothold because of the incredibly weak disclosure rules. Under such conditions, it's all too predictable that New Zealand's reputation as one of the least corrupt in the world is poised to fall. And more important than our reputation for high-quality civil service and integrity, we risk losing the reality of good government. Citizen confidence, freedom, equality and self-governance for all are now in doubt.
In the US, weak campaign finance laws have undermined democracy, transforming the country into a political regime that serves the wealthy above and beyond the rest of its citizens. Poorly regulated campaign contributions, outside expenditures and lobbyists influence elections and buy access to those elected.
Research has shown the great majority of funds available to campaigns, parties and interest groups are provided by a tiny sliver of the population. Approximately 0.5 per cent of the adult population controls the market for campaign funds and around 0.0001 per cent controls outside spending through opaque and unaccountable vehicles, such as super PACs (political action committees) and dark money groups.
The great majority of lobbying activity favours big business interests. This oligarchy denigrates and corrupts democracy by its insidious influence, degrading core values such as political equality, citizen participation and trust, government representation, responsiveness and integrity.
The resulting laws and policies – as US political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have shown – serve the upper economic classes, often to the detriment of the rest of the country, creating a downward spiral toward plutocracy and climate crisis.
While the US has historically overcome two previous plutocratic tendencies that plagued the country during slavery and the industrial era, it is now in the grip of a third. But instead of passing laws to address economic and political inequalities, the nation fell for the populist deception of President Donald Trump, whose policies are now exacerbating the corruption he promised to remedy.
With such colossal vulnerabilities to undue influence and government capture, it's no wonder that economic inequality has grown substantially in recent decades and voter participation has decreased.
Citizens would do well to wonder whether a political system with such vulnerability to monied interests will be independent and public-spirited enough to address the housing crisis, protect the right to access to clean, potable water or respond adequately to climate change. As time passes, there's no guarantee that citizens will retain their faith in government or keep bothering to participate in elections and public debate. Even if people do keep participating in large numbers, there's no guarantee that it will continue to matter. Public policy is being privatised. Popular representation, responsiveness and integrity are all in jeopardy.
New Zealand has a number of options to correct its course. Whether it takes a cue from more successful models or blazes a trail of its own, true democratic governance requires a few key features.
At the most fundamental level, New Zealanders need greater transparency. With much more rigorous reporting requirements and publicly available political funding information, voters would have the vital information they need to make decisions. These reports containing detailed campaign contributions from $100 and lobbying information can be placed into a user-friendly searchable website at the Electoral Commission.
Secondly, an outright ban on foreign contributions to candidates and parties prevents improper influence from interest groups outside our borders or skewing our policies into another country's favour.
Third, hard limits on contributions – to candidates and parties or other politically active groups – help level the playing field, as do outright bans on contributions from organisations such as corporations.
And finally, ethics requirements for lobbying including prohibitions on gifts and limitations on revolving doors help prevent access inequalities and more fair representation within our own borders. Canada, the UK and the US have all moved to regulate lobbying. Australia has also begun taking such steps, although it remains behind other Western democracies.
If one focuses on its privatised regime of unlimited corporate and individual campaign donations, poor disclosure and unregulated lobbying, New Zealand looks more like an undeveloped country from the 1970s than a leading democracy and therefore easy prey for concentrated capital; and, in fact, it is.
Important reforms have already been proposed. For example, a lobbying disclosure bill failed to pass in 2013, but could be redesigned and resubmitted should citizens demand it. Next, the Electoral (Strengthening Democracy) Amendment Bill would improve voting rights, limit the influence of big money and strengthen disclosure requirements.
It also needs a groundswell of public support to stand a chance. These critical measures to protect the public interest deserve New Zealanders' full attention. We are wary of the potential for good government to be compromised by complacency.
Make no mistake; despite New Zealand's reputation for low corruption and high-quality civil service, the country is surprisingly vulnerable to capture by monied interests.
• Dr Maria Armoudian is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland
• Timothy K Kuhner is an associate professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Auckland