OPINION: The mud has flown so fast and so thick in the latest brouhaha over whether politicians take "cash for access" that it's hard to measure each claim on its merits.
The debate is a new twist in a decade-long tangle about political donations that has gone everywhere from the Exclusive Brethren to Kim Dotcom to the so-called Cabinet Club.
Not every case is equal, clearly. Ringing the police to help a donor charged with domestic violence is utterly beyond the pale, as Maurice Williamson discovered last week.
Delivering a speech at an electorate meeting that some local bigwigs have paid a few hundred dollars to attend seems very different. Such folk aren't going to be able to yank a government's chain easily.
Short of publicly financing political parties, which isn't on the cards, they need to get their money from somewhere. It's not donations themselves which are the problem, or even access per se, but the thought that they might buy real perks.
Why do people give money to politicians at all? There are really only two reasons: because they like what they're about, or because they want something from them.
The first is not a problem. If people really feel like it, they should be able to throw their money at candidates and causes they support – provided the donation is made public. Gym boss Phillip Mills has given the Green Party $60,000 because he's concerned about climate change. Fair enough – his money, his decision.
The second motivation – quid pro quo – is potentially a big problem, if it results in special favours to donors. At worst, that's called corruption.
It's the suspicion of special treatment that lingers over some of the National Party's interactions with its funders.
Williamson's case is damning, but there's also an enduring worry about Judith Collins' adventures with milk exporter Oravida – that the company might have earned special help by its large donations to National.
Still, there are grey areas. What of lobbies like the unions, which help fund the Labour Party and expect sympathetic policy in return?
The debate should remind us of the unending lure of money – especially to the powerful, and even in squeaky-clean New Zealand. It should also make the case for transparency blisteringly obvious. Despite two rewrites of electoral finance law in the past decade, the rules are still too secretive.
Donors can give up to $15,000 to a party without publicly revealing themselves. Both major parties take many such donations: last year National received $872,000 this way, including 56 donations over $5000. Labour took $483,000, with 47 donations over $5000.
This is how National throws a $5000-a-head dinner at fancy restaurant Antoine's, or Labour sells stalls – and chats to senior MPs – at its conference for $1250 a pop. Who are these people and what do they want? We can't tell.
Let them talk, let them dine, but let us know all about it. Then anyone can examine the relationships, and voters can decide if they are fishy. The case of Oravida, whose donations are known only because they outstripped the secrecy threshold, proves the value of such public scrutiny
IN PRAISE OF ... WELLINGTON FOOD
Good food's not so much a hobby in Wellington as a compulsion. Recessions have failed to dim it, the miserable winds and rains of May can't stop it – this is a city that loves to eat. Famously possessed of more cafes per capita than New York, Wellington on an ordinary weeknight means streets full of packed feeding places.
There's nothing more frightening than the crowds at Moore Wilson's on a Sunday morning or a broken-down espresso machine at one of the city's many coffee bars. This weekend marks the Wellington Food Show – a showcase for artisan food and drink producers.
Locals include the Wellington Chocolate Factory, House of Dumplings and coffee roasters Zampelles, as well as chefs like Martin Bosley, while products and chefs from further afield also feature. Later in the year, there'll be Wellington on a Plate, the annual frenzy of restaurant feasting.
Meanwhile, all around there's a renaissance in fine craft-beer production, in slow-cooking and local-market buying, in elaborate cookbooks and mesmerising food television. Yes, it's almost enough to make anyone feel full. But don't let it – good food is a guiltless pleasure.
Don't believe us? Ask the woman in red who's been hawking Whittaker's chocolate down at the railway station. The charming Nigella will surely put you right.
- Fairfax Media