Secret donors: Buck stops here

MONEY SHOT: Prime Minister John Key poses for photos with supporters at a National Party fundraising dinner this month.
MONEY SHOT: Prime Minister John Key poses for photos with supporters at a National Party fundraising dinner this month.

John Key posed, smiling for photos with cashed up donors and other supporters, at a fundraising dinner and auction at King's House restaurant in East Tamaki this month.

A source believes they donated about $200,000 to National's election campaign - but their identities would never have been known if the Sunday Star-Times had not obtained these photos.

"This was my private fundraising dinner, I don't want to talk about the details," National list MP Dr Jian Yang said yesterday. "It was a private dinner and I don't want to reveal it to the public or the media. All parties have their fundraisers, it was all done legally and there's nothing wrong."

He is right - most of the major parties are doing it, in some form. On the other side of the political fence, Labour has been running similar fundraising dinners at the Lucky Fortune restaurant; this newspaper has been supplied with more photos from an ACT fundraiser that is said to have raised up to $80,000; and an earlier Maori Party fundraiser offered guests the chance to "chat confidentially" with the prime minister.

Donors to the big political parties have attached their names to $10.5 million between 2011 and 2014. But another $6.3m of donations to the same parties are marked anonymous.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars more are donated anonymously to the campaigns of parliamentary and local body candidates.

Voters have had enough, according to a new political poll. An overwhelming 68 per cent say the identities of all donors to parties should be disclosed.

Today, the Sunday Star-Times launches a campaign calling for transparency in political funding so that all donations - however large or small - be immediately disclosed to the Electoral Commission. The paper asks that loopholes allowing donors to be masked by trusts and other aggregators, like fundraising events, be closed.

At present, anything less than $15,000 can be donated anonymously, and other loopholes exist to keep donors' names out of the public domain.

Labour and the Greens said they would support greater transparency. Green Party co-leader Dr Russel Norman said the identity of anyone who donated more than $1000 should be disclosed; Labour leader David Cunliffe was open to the idea that all donations, big or small, should be disclosed.

However Key said although the broad principle of transparency was sensible, it had the "perverse outcome" of deterring good people because they feared being publicly named.

On Wednesday, Key will be the guest of honour at a National Party fundraising dinner at the Pullman Hotel, where a seat costs $1350 plus GST and a table costs $13,500 plus GST. Under existing rules, the identities of the guests need not be disclosed.

National's general manager Greg Hamilton said: "We're strongly of the view that taxpayers should not have to fund political parties any more than they do now. But the consequence of that is that we need to allow parties to accept donations in a responsible way."

Labour general secretary Tim Barnett warned setting a donation threshold at close to nil would be likely to put off donors. "If there was a system like that it would undoubtedly have a chilling effect on all parties' income," Barnett said, with any debate over funding needing to address whether there should be state funding of parties.

The Green Party supports a $1000 limit on anonymous donations - but Otago University's Bryce Edwards said any arbitrary threshold led to loopholes. "If you set it at $500 or $5000 or whatever, the parties cannot be aware of necessarily where it's coming from. Either you have everything declared or nothing."

Right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton said many Kiwis saw political parties as institutions not unlike St John or Greenpeace and believed they should have the right to make modest contributions "without having it plastered all over the internet".

Sunday Star Times