The "Cabinet club" sounds like a privileged circle of wealthy people well plugged into the Government of the country. That is exactly what National MPs and their electorate committees must hope that it sounds like when they give that name to a party fund-raising event attended by a Cabinet minister. It certainly sounds sinister to Opposition parties who are calling it "cash for access". Should the rest of us be worried?

People who are prepared to pay several hundred dollars for a dinner attended by the Prime Minister or one of his ministers undoubtedly do so because they want his Government to be re-elected, and, if they are honest, the occasion makes them feel like members of a privileged circle well plugged into the Government, at least while the function lasts.

This is a successful fundraising formula for political parties everywhere, especially in the United States where the President and members of Congress spend a good deal of their time speaking at fundraisers. It certainly brings in the cash but "access" is another question.

Access to what? If the gathering is intimate enough it will provide access to a powerful ear. But New Zealand is often called an intimate democracy because access to a powerful ear in this country is not very hard to obtain.


If letters to electorate or parliamentary offices do not have the desired result, local MPs still advertise public meetings with ministers. Failing all else, there is talk radio. Ministers, especially prime ministers, seldom turn down an opportunity to talk directly to radio callers and listeners.

But it is not simply "access" that Opposition parties imply. They mean to suggest that a ticket to a Cabinet club function buys favours of a corrupt nature. That would be a worry if New Zealand followed an economic policy that invited governments to control who and how many firms could supply goods and services and on what terms. Ironically, some of the critics of the "Cabinet club" advocate policies that would have created much more scope for the favours they imply.

Their phrase, "cash for access", probably amuses those who have paid over the odds for a fundraising dinner. The only "access" they will have expected or received was to a seat. They are under no illusions that the money is anything more than a donation to John Key's re-election. They undoubtedly consider that result alone would be worth their outlay, just as donors to Labour or the Greens believe the country would be better governed by them.

It is unfortunate that the Prime Minister has decided to fight dirt with dirt, implying the Labour Party's fundraising events are equally suspicious. That sounds like an admission of guilt and an attempt to share it around. It is a pity, too, that Mr Key pretends ministers attend these events only as party members and MPs. Cabinet members carry greater inside knowledge of the Government than other MPs and carry it wherever they go.

Both National and Labour take care to keep their parliamentarians at arms length from the party's large donors. Though greater public disclosure now means the donors will be known to them, it also means that any connections between their business interests and government policy decisions will be transparent.

Donors at a fundraising function are hardly in the same category. To require disclosure of the names of everyone who buys a seat at these events would be absurd. The buyers might not mind the publicity, they will talk about the acquaintance they have made to anyone who might be interested. It is probably the only personal benefit they can expect for their financial contribution to the government they prefer.

9 May, 2014 9:00am
2 minutes to read