Editorial: Openness is the best policy
There was something both a little overwrought and naive about the attempt last week to drum up a fuss about the fact that some people had paid large sums to attend functions at which they would have the opportunity to meet and talk to politicians. All political parties put strenuous effort into raising money to keep themselves going and those efforts reach a peak in the period leading up to an election. To try to convert perfectly legitimate fundraising into something more sinister shows a view of the rough trade of politics that is touching but wildly unrealistic.
The ruckus was manufactured out of the publicising of the entirely unsurprising fact that the National Party has been running events which donors pay to attend and socialise with Government ministers. It became even sillier with the reporting of a perfectly ordinary Wellington event organised by a prominent National Party fundraiser that gathered (and properly reported) $45,000 for the party. It was suggested that the fact that Prime Minister John Key was there with his chief of staff somehow turned his presence into an official appearance and amounted to using his office to support the party.
This is nonsense. Using high-ranking politicians and ministers as bait at fundraising events is practised by all political parties. As the Prime Minister and others have pointed out, the Labour Party at its last conference in Christchurch offered one-on-one meetings with its MPs for a hefty fee. It is perfectly legitimate and dubbing it "cash for access" and calling it a scam does not make it any less so.
It is not as though there is anything exclusive in the practice. New Zealand members of Parliament, including ministers, are extraordinarily accessible and open to meeting anyone. Those who pay money to meet politicians are doing so not because the encounter bestows any particular benefit on them but because they are showing support for those of a like-minded political disposition.
There is, moreover, nothing wrong with ministers having general discussions about political issues at such gatherings. In fact, the more views politicians and ministers hear before they frame policy the better. Even if an individual is able to bend a minister's ear about some policy or other, the policy must still make it through the meatgrinder of the political process where a thousand other voices are added to the outcome.
"Cash for access" is very far from "cash for favours", of which New Zealand is blessedly free. New Zealand politicians are undeniably the least corrupt in the world and to suggest scams where none exist is mudslinging for no useful purpose.
To keep things above board, though, it is important that there is as much openness about what goes on as possible. Some donors to political parties, while willing to part with their cash to support their party of choice, come over all bashful about having their support publicly known. And both major parties unfortunately have been willing to indulge them in their shyness. Parties must declare the gifts they have received, but even after two rewrites of electoral finance law in the last decade it is still possible for an individual to gift up to $15,000 without revealing his or her identity.
Money and politics always arouses a whiff of suspicion among the cynical even if the suspicion is entirely unfounded. The best way to avoid that is to strip away any secrecy surrounding it.