Local body elections: Time for transparency of all donations

Suzanne Snively
Chair
Transparency International New Zealand

From the Chair:

September 2019

Lack of fair funding for candidates in general elections has attracted a lot of angst over the years.

The consequence of unequal access to campaign funding is that people who end up in public office tend to be those who have access to that funding or personal savings. This undermines diversity and provides barriers for younger candidates to run. 

An immediate challenge is finding a solution to address the lack of transparency about campaign financing.

The Shelly Bay debacle

Local government campaign funding has tended to be under the radar. 

OR at least it has been until now. 

The ongoing Shelly Bay debacle in Wellington shows local government candidate funding faces issues very similar to those for national elections.

Property developers donated nearly three-quarters of the $211,362 in declared donations given to Wellington Mayoral Candidates in 2016. And there is evidence that these declared donations are just a small amount of the total.  (See Time to rein in the cash in local politics? – Pete McKenzie)

Over a period of a year during the 2016 election cycle, for example, Ian Cassels donated at least $50,000 with various amounts going to several of the mayoral candidates.  Ian and his partner Patricia Caitlin Taylor own property development firm The Wellington Company. To enhance what it sees as the benefits for the Shelly Bay location, The Wellington Company has been negotiating with the Wellington City Council for many years.

Then just last week – two weeks into the six-week local body election campaigning period – The Wellington Company bought the final piece of land in Shelly Bay owned by Taranaki Whanui for $10 million. Opponents of the transaction complain that the price is way under market.

Fair Representation

The concern for national general elections is to ensure that different political ideologies and perspectives have a fair chance of being represented. 

For Wellington, the motivation of property-developer donors is to build support for their projects.  Even though it isn’t promoting an ideology or partisan political party, the impact on diversity in elections is the same.

More importantly, the approach has the potential to undermine democratic process for property development decisions.

Offshore Donations

Another growing concern is donations coming from offshore interests into New Zealand. 

During a recent briefing to the Justice Select Committee, the Director General of the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service, Rebecca Kitteridge and the head of the Government Communications Security Bureau, Andrew Hampton, told the MPs on the committee that they had seen “relationship building and donation activity by state actors and their proxies that had concerned them”.

With new central government funding for regional development projects, the potential for these donations to impact on local body elections in increased.   These projects are designed to result in improved investment returns, which is attractive to offshore investors who may target local government candidates throughout New Zealand.

Transparency can shed more light on donations

Banning foreign donations, while important, is unlikely to be effective on its own.  Transparency with more stringent disclosure requirements has a proven impact on preventing conduct with corrupt intent.  Greater transparency and accountability will improve the ability of the agencies to trace and investigate donations. Effective transparency and accountability also inform the wider public and the media, enabling a wider scope in scrutiny that detects and prevents corruption and other misconduct.

A starting point is to lower the bar for reporting of donations from the current threshold of $1,500.  Further, it is important for donations to be published in real time during the election campaign instead of delayed reporting after the campaign is finished.

Greater transparency can assist in creating an equal playing field, so electors are able to fairly compare political candidates, even when there are diverse advertising campaigns.  Electors will be better placed to make informed choices about candidates’ wisdom for making future infrastructure and other decisions.

The practice of transparency and accountability

Transparency and accountability are objectives that almost all candidates claim to aspire to. These two words are thrown around like confetti during their election campaigns.

To promote greater understanding of what these terms mean in practice, Transparency International New Zealand has included five sets of questions in this newsletter to be used when talking with local body candidates, and for candidates to reflect on themselves.  These questions are being circulated around New Zealand to many local body election candidates.

Applicable to all positions – Council and Regional Council, District Health Boards and community boards and trusts – the questions focus on integrity, transparency and accountability.

Wellington Mayoral Candidate Forum

These questions have already been sent to the Mayoral candidates for Wellington who will be presenting their responses at a public lunchtime event hosted by TINZ on Thursday 26 September 2019, 12:30 – 1:30 pm, at the Old Government Buildings (OGB – the home of the VUW Law School).   The venue is the OGB Lecture Theatre 3, on the ground floor at the back.

There are 9 Mayoral candidates in Wellington. The two leading candidates are incumbent Mayor, Justin Lester who has received donations from The Wellington Property Company, and, Andy Foster, whose supporters include Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. 

The commentator at this 26 September event will be Max Rashbrooke, and the Chair will be Lambton Ward Candidate Tamatha Paul.

Suzanne Snively, ONZM

Chair

Transparency International New Zealand Inc.

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