Red Alert

Limiting big money in local govt

Posted by on December 11th, 2010

Campaign donation returns for the Auckland mayoral race were filed yesterday and Auckland Mayor Len Brown is taking a bit of heat here and here for channeling $499,000 in campaign donations through a trust. His unsuccessful opponent John Banks accepted $520,086 in anonymous donations.

I think there should be openness about donations to political campaigns. Local government electoral law needs to be changed so donations are transparent, there are sensible spending limits, and limits on third party campaigns.

The parties have argued over these issues in recent years in relation to central government but I don’t think anyone has worried too much about tightening up the rules for local government. With the creation of the Auckland Council the power and resources at stake make it essential there are rules to limit the influence of big money.

Local Government Minister Rodney Hide says he doesn’t want to see any transparency requirements.

To be fair to John Banks and Len Brown, they have both operated within the law. The National Party has a history of using secret trusts. It was pretty obvious John Banks would rely on big anonymous donors. Len Brown would have been tying one hand behind his own back if he hadn’t been willing to accept anonymous donations too. The rules need to be changed so there is a level playing field.

National should have included transparency for campaign donations when it passed the Auckland super city legislation, as well as a lower spending cap, and limits on third parties. Now would be a good time to review the Local Electoral Act to get this sorted out.


31 Responses to “Limiting big money in local govt”

  1. Peter Martin says:

    So Labour is utterly transparent in its donations?
    I could, were you to point me the way, be able to see immediately who donated to Labour and when and how much?
    Or is this an aspiration which policy is soon to be?

  2. Draco T Bastard says:

    Local government electoral law needs to be changed so donations are transparent, there are sensible spending limits, and limits on third party campaigns.

    I’m actually amazed that Labour didn’t do that when they stuck through the EFA.

    Local Government Minister Rodney Hide says he doesn’t want to see any transparency requirements.

    Pretty sure he’d be all in favour of “privacy” requirements so that even more can be hidden from the public.

    To be fair to John Banks and Len Brown, they have both operated within the law.

    Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean to say that it’s right or moral. Which is, of course, why laws need to be updated regularly.

  3. Colonial Viper says:

    Phil thanks so much for raising this.

    We only need to see the situation in the US where every congress-person is now beholden to corporate and private interests for election campaign financing. It corrodes the very nature of democracy.

    A lobbyist can walk into a meeting with a senator and say “I have a $1M advertising budget for these elections. I can spend it on messages for you or for messages against you. What can you do for me?”

    In that situation Congress no longer represents the people: it represents commercial and private interests.

  4. Phil Twyford says:

    Peter you seem to have missed one of the main points of the post. In the ultra-competitive environment of an election campaign it is unrealistic to expect one candidate to tie one hand behind his back by foregoing anonymous donations when his opponent is taking them. That shouldn’t stop us from having a debate about what the law should be.

  5. Al1ens says:

    I’m all for taking donation money out of politics.
    It just can’t ever be right to have an advantage over your opponent because you have a bigger budget or wealthier benefactors.

    For the sake of fair and open democracy, it’s time for fixed election budgets paid by the tax payer.

  6. Gooner says:

    Local Government Minister Rodney Hide says he doesn’t want to see any transparency requirements.

    Where did he say this and when?

  7. Gooner says:

    Are you saying Len Brown knew John Banks was taking anonmous donations through a trust?

    If so, why did the Labour Party candidate stay silent on this and follow Banks? If Labour was so concerned about transparency, as you allude to here, why didn’t Brown raise this and take the moral high ground and say he wouldn’t be doing that?

    That fact he didn’t totally contradicts your faux outrage at any purported lack of transparency.

  8. Gooner says:

    Actually, on second thoughts, it was Labour Party mayoral candidate Mr Brown who said he believed in transparency “within limits”, not the minister.

    I am astounded at the gall of the post quite frankly.

  9. Al1ens says:

    “it was Labour Party mayoral candidate Mr Brown”

    So you agree, even if somewhat confused about Mr Browns political allegience, that Auckland underwent a dramatic swing to the left?

    Not looking good in 2011 for the blues.

  10. Phil Twyford says:

    Gooner – Are you saying the ACT position opposing transparency of donations, donation limits and third party limits has changed? I’d be very interested to know if it has. Your leader said on RNZ’s 1pm news bulletin when asked about transparency of donations that he thought ‘you should be able to give donations to whomever you want’. Put that alongside ACT’s well documented position, seems pretty clear to me.

  11. I don’t agree with the use of anonymous trusts to hide the identity of political donors. Labour stopped it happening at a national level in 2007 with the Electoral Finance Act and was accused on making an “attack on democracy”. I supported that policy at the time and I still do.

    I think the same rules should apply to local government politicians as apply to those running for Parliament. Actually, when you look at the role of mayor and councillors, they’re actually closer to decisions that impact on individuals and organizations (eg resource consents) so voters should know what other “interests” they may be considering.

    I think Labour should lead by example.

  12. Gooner says:

    Somewhat confused about Brown’s allegiance?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXFOf5p8v9M

    I agree the Blues will not win the Super 14 in 2011.

  13. Gooner says:

    Okay, so two Labour MPs agree with me that Labour Party mayor, Len Brown, has not been transparent with his donations.

    Personally I don’t care. See here: http://www.kiwiblog.co.nz/2010/12/lens_500000_secret_trust.html#comment-775449

    I do care about there being two standards – one for the “Hollow Men”, and one for the Left.

  14. ghostwhowalksnz says:

    Viper , the disclosure in the US is very comprehensive, your name AND the name of your employer , even if you give $2 is listed. when you give to a candidate.

    Doesnt change a thing about being in the thrall to those with deep pockets.

    of course groups which run campaigns for or against a person can be pretty much anonymous.

  15. Inventory2 says:

    So Phil; what you are saying is that the end justifies the means; have I got that right? The man whom Phil Goff refers to as “Labour’s Mayor” certainly seems to have operated in a manner polls apart from what Labour advocated in 2007 when the EFA was passed.

    Then again, Len won, Banksie lost, and I guess we all just have to eat that, even if it comes with a liberal sprinkling of hypocrisy, Volare-style.

  16. Harry says:

    Impeding freedom of speech? Well, that is Labour stock.

    Besides, Len Brown promised “transparency” and has been about as transparent as sheet rock.

  17. Swampy says:

    How is it that suddently this is an issue for Labour. When they pass the Electoral Finance Act it was completely ignored.

  18. Swampy says:

    Mr Twyford there is no reason that would make the difference between anonymous and declared donations significant enough to justify that Brown is somehow forced to use a secret trust.

  19. Anne says:

    The story as it appeared in the Herald newspaper was notable for the way it highlighted Len Brown’s anonymous donations that were actually less than John Banks’, but Banks only qualified for a small mention in the body of the article. They would say it was because Len is the Mayor while John is only the former mayor. If the boot had been on the other foot, there would probably have been no story at all.

    Love to say what I think of that newspaper when it comes to political issues, but I would go into permanent moderation if I did.

  20. Viking says:

    Interesting that if the gossip is correct there appear to be donations from a Council Controlled Organization that is funded by ratepayers. The very same trust that is run by new appointee’s to CCO’s. New appointments that were made in secret meeting’s.

    Has a bad smell to it.

  21. tracey says:

    Viking, gossip from where?

  22. rouppe says:

    Phil, you said

    Len Brown would have been tying one hand behind his own back if he hadn’t been willing to accept anonymous donations too

    What I’m missing out of this whole conversation is why Len Brown, that champion of transparency (except for ratepayer funded dinners), having realised that he need donations in order to ‘level the playing field’ had to use a secret trust. Sure he had to accept donations, but they didn’t need to be secret.

    No-one is complaining that he received half a million in donations. He could just as easily received them directly. The only difference would have been his having to disclose the donors.

    Given that Len champions transparency, surely most if not all of his donors would too.

    For the record I think secret donations are bad – full stop. As has been said before, Len could have taken the moral high ground but chose not to. That is telling

  23. Jimmie says:

    Gossip – see whaleoil tracey he did a fairly comprehensive post in relation to the dodgy dealing with a South Auckland based Pacifc Trust

    Basically money from the old Manakau Council lent to the trust, the trust donates to Mayor Brown’s election coffers, and then Len’s mate at the trust gets appointed to a CCO.
    THe inference being that ratepayer funds indirectly went into Brown’s election campaign fund.

  24. Draco T Bastard says:

    How is it that suddently this is an issue for Labour. When they pass the Electoral Finance Act it was completely ignored.

    No it wasn’t – it was specifically targeted (That’s what NACT were upset about – not being able to hide their owners details behind trusts any more) but only at the national level and not for local government. They should have addressed the local government act as well (I’m sure there’s a good reason why the rules between the two are two separate pieces of legislation) but they probably didn’t have enough time.

  25. Spud says:

    I feel indifferent about this, :neutral:

  26. No it wasn’t – it was specifically targeted (That’s what NACT were upset about – not being able to hide their owners details behind trusts any more)

    It was not specifically targeted. Reform of donation disclosure was left out of Labour’s Electoral Finance Bill. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward it at the multi-party select committee.

  27. Craig Ranapia says:

    Phil Twyford wrote:
    “In the ultra-competitive environment of an election campaign it is unrealistic to expect one candidate to tie one hand behind his back by foregoing anonymous donations when his opponent is taking them”

    I reply:
    Oh, what a load of nonsense — candidates and parties “tie their hands” all the time. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but doesn’t the Labour Party have a long-standing ban on accepting campaign contributions from tobacco companies, legality or “everyone else is doing it” be damned? And last year, the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation returned a donation from pornographer Steve Crow because it didn’t want to be perceived as endorsing the Boobs on Bikes parade.

    The simple fact is that Len Brown COULD have walked the talk about transparency, accountability and open government not beholden to the chequebooks of special interests. He chose not to, and can wear the consequences. “They do it to,” is not a justification fit for an adult, Phil.

  28. mickysavage says:

    Some context is important here.

    1. The super city mayoralty is that big a contest that, in the absence of significant public funding or vast personal wealth, donations from private sources are going to be required.
    2. Donations can be made anonymously. A trust is not needed to hide the donor’s identity.
    3. A trust has the benefit that the Mayor or any other supported candidate do not know who has contributed funds to his campaign.

    So if instead of the return having the name of the trust on it, it had a list of anonymous donors’ names this would have been better?

  29. StephenR says:

    A trust has the benefit that the Mayor or any other supported candidate do not know who has contributed funds to his campaign.

    …unless they tell the candidate beforehand?

  30. tracey says:

    Thanks jimmie, saved me going to whaleoil’s site…

    I dont like the anonymous thing… I support full declaration of names. If the majority stop donating because of it, what’s the worse that can happen?

  31. Ha, ha, oh the spin…

    National uses trusts and are “hollow men”, Brown does it and it’s okay becuase the other guy got donations and it’s legal…

    You’re all as bad as each other…