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The Nation: Nicky Hager

On Newshub Nation: Tova O’Brien Interviews Journalist Nicky Hager

One journalist who has written about electoral law over several elections is author of the book Dirty Politics, Nicky Hager. Political Editor, Tova O’Brien, asked him whether he believes the Justice Select Committee is leaving it too late to protect our election from outside influence.

Hager: What I’d say is they’ve left it very late, and elections only happen once every three years, and they should get on with it like all countries are thinking about at the moment. So it just means that they’ve left it late, but they need to get on with it and do it.

O’Brien: Given the necessary secrecy around security issues, how will we know when our electoral system is protected enough?

There’s always ways for sneaky money to move around, and so the way we’ll know when we’re protected if we were to see a law which doesn’t leave holes left in it.

Do you have faith that this select committee process and the noises we’re hearing from the government will actually get us to that point where we have a law and a framework that prevents outside influence in our political system?

I think we haven’t seen enough specific detail yet, but what we know is that companies can be owned by companies, can be owned by companies, and can be owned in the British Virgin Islands, in Cayman Islands, in Singapore. And so thinking that if you had a really serious, organised state actor trying to put money into your political system, that it would be easy to find, it’s just not true. The answer to this, which is a simple answer but not necessarily a welcome answer, is that you have to take out the secret money from your whole political system. It’s as simple as that, and it’s actually a really important principle. At the moment we also have coming into our political system from the tobacco industry, for example, and no one knows that that’s there. And we have it coming in from other industry lobby groups, and we have it coming from people who have decided that they will just have a friendly relationship with MP, but not let their name go further. The reason that people do that — why are they doing it? Because it gives them influence. That’s why they put that money in. And so the simple, clean answer — if you want to stop the very dodgy money, is that you stop the rest of the sort of dodgy money. It’s a simple solution, and many countries around the world have systems that do that, and we can too.

And you’re saying this is really quite prevalent in New Zealand?

The thing about election donation scandals is that they keep on happening. You just have to think back and you realise, ‘Hang on a minute. We were thinking about this a few years ago, and then we were thinking about it 10 years ago.’ And it’s bonkers. We’re so careful about— We don’t let somebody give an MP a free car, for example. We don’t allow that kind of corruption of our MPs, and then we allow people, to give election money, which is a thing that the MP wants most of all — which is a way to win an election. We let them give them that without accountability and transparency. We just have to face up to it, I think, and the good thing is that in normal circumstances, no parties want to face up to this because some of them do very well out of this, and it’s a difficult, extra issue, but since there’s a problem of foreign interference — which is urgent and unavoidable and has to be dealt with — and you can’t deal with that without really dealing with the rest of the problems. We should just clean it up.

And also deeply concerning to the broader electorate. Why is it so important that we need accountability and transparency around political donations?

Why do people give money to parties? Now, some people give money because they support the party, and they want it to do well. That’s an ordinary person, but they might give $50 or even $500. But most normal people don’t give tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or more to a party. You move out of the realm of the democratic system to buying of influence. We’ve once again, we’ve come around to where there’s a scandal and it’s got attention on it, and it’s the right time to sort it out.

You’re talking about the $150,000 donation—

Precisely.

…facilitated, in a way, by Todd McClay to the National Party in 2017. It was legal, so what’s the issue?

So the point is that things are legal because we’ve got bad laws, but it wasn’t transparent. We should’ve known—

You’re talking about the influence. So what was the quid pro quo? Can we point to something that shows that this person did get undue influence within the National Party?

No. The whole point is that the system is set up so legally you can do things which no one will ever know what happened.

Donations from foreigners are banned over $1500. This particular donation was from a Chinese national, funnelled through a New Zealand business. Does the law need to be changed specifically around that loophole?

Yes. The law needs to be changed around that loophole, but then there’s another loophole. That’s what I meant by, ‘This keeps coming around.’

What’s the answer? What is the political system that we need?

The political system is that we shouldn’t have large political donations. That’s a start. We can have little political donations from real people who, you know, support this or that party. Maybe $500, maybe $1000, but then stop it there because after that no ordinary person is doing it anyway. That means that we’ve got a deficit, that parties don’t have enough money to run themselves at election time. But rather than them going off to get all sorts of slightly dodgy, slightly — mildly — legally, but corrupt kind of ways from everyone who’s got lots of money, you just pay some public money.

Why should the taxpayer have to pay for a select few political parties? Who determines who gets that money?

It’s just like we pay our police so they don’t have to collect bribes. We pay our judges and we pay our— We pay for things. We pay our MPs so they don’t have to work on the side. The reason we do this is to have a non-corruptible system. The same reason you put money into election campaigns is so that you don’t have unseen influence, which is really— You know, when a government’s elected, it’s spending tens of billions of dollars of public money. So, why would you want to have any possible corruption or influence in that for the sake of a tiny fraction of a percentage of the money they’re going to spend in government? You just clean it up.

Among other things, though, the Green Party say no political party wants this framework around political donations, but the Green Party has said it wants a blanket ban. The head of the SIS is saying this week a foreign donation ban on its own wouldn’t on its own be effective because, basically, people can find proxies, I suppose, like we saw in the National Party $150,000 case. Would that work — a foreign donation ban?

No, I completely agree with the head of the SIS, and that is to say that just closing up the current, sort of, creaky little piece of law, which has got a loophole in it isn’t going to solve the problem.

If we didn’t get that, what about moving to the Canadian model — so only individual citizens or residents can make donations? Could we follow suit in that regard? Would that help enough?

I think that the Canadian system would be an improvement, but it wouldn’t solve the problem because what would you do when there was suddenly very large donations coming from people who were truly citizens, but you didn’t know who was behind them? That’s the trouble with money. Money is so moveable and fluid, and you don’t know where it starts from. If you’re trying to stop unseen, unaccountable money in your political system, that doesn’t work either.

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