The price tag on rubbing shoulders

03:54, May 11 2014

When you get paid to listen to politicians talk, perhaps it comes as a revelation that some folk do it the other way round. 

The Beltway got itself into a lather last week over political donations. 

The existence of National's Cabinet Clubs - where ministers participate in a Q&A over lunch or breakfast - came under the microscope. Money raised from ticket sales goes into the party coffers.

This, on top of the donor scandals engulfing ministers Judith Collins and Maurice Williamson, left a nasty stain on the Government.

Immigration minister Michael Woodhouse was dragged into the fray after it emerged he held discussions with Donghua Liu.

The businessman at the centre of Williamson's resignation gave National $22,000 and he wants rules around wealthy migrants changed.


National may argue that Williamson got the sack - a signal that behaviour won't be tolerated.

The Government has spent weeks arguing semantics over Collins' Oravida connections.  

Woodhouse has insisted there was no impropriety.

But if National can't stem this flow of corruption scandals, they risk their brand becoming toxic.

Welcome to the year of sleaze. Cash for access stinks. Selling the right to kiss the ring of power, and using the cash to run election campaigns, is grubby. 

According to the opposition, National is for sale. According to National, Labour and the Greens are also for hire.

Both sides have a point.

The problem with party fundraisers is the amounts involved are usually too small to meet the declaration threshold of $15,000.  This lack of transparency is what troubles the Greens.

However, the Greens are also pushing their own agenda. They want you (the taxpayer) to fund their election campaigns. (So do Labour, but they don't shout as loudly about it.)

At the last election, the Greens' state-funded broadcasting allocation was $300,000, compared with $1.1m each to Labour and National.

In 2011, they were gifted just over $310,000 from 94 donors (the party also tithes its MPs). Their campaign expenditure was $780,000. National spent more than $2 million.

State funding would even up the odds considerably for the Greens - financially it would benefit them.

Also worth mentioning is that the Greens are pushing new policy, a ministerial disclosure regime, which was referred to in Tuesday's press release about Cabinet Club meetings.

In 2011, they received $20,000 from Fletcher Building. The Greens' biggest donor last year was Phillip Mills, the multi-millionaire gym boss, who founded green growth lobby groups Pure Advantage and 100% Plan.  They might not like the donor system, but they'll sure as hell take the money.

There is no good versus evil here. The Greens are pushing a climate change agenda that they are passionate about. National MPs are equally passionate about encouraging investment because they believe it benefits the country.

All the breathless coverage aside, (so far) this is not the donations row that hobbled NZ First at the 2008 election.

But what it does highlight that after a decade of reforms and tweaks, electoral finance laws are still a mess.  

Both National and Labour have blurred the lines by offering face time for cash.

The public can have no longer have faith that the price tag on rubbing shoulders does not also include arm-twisting.