Curiouser and Curiouser

Jami-Lee Ross appears to be a quite exceptional candidate for the National Party. He does things in relation to money given to him that none of his colleagues do - albeit only in relation to one particular donation.

Further to my previous post about Jami-Lee Ross' curious candidate return, I've been doing a little bit more digging through the Electoral Commission's files.

To remind you ... Mr Ross included in his return a donation of $25,000 from the "controversial" donor Donghua Liu, whose connection to the National Party had caused it some embarrassment in early 2014. In addition to the sheer size of the gift - it was one of the biggest donations from any individual donor to an individual electorate candidate during the campaign cycle - what was particularly unusual about this donation was when it was given.

The donation was made on 15 August 2013. Mr Ross was only formally selected as National's candidate for Botany in January 2014. So the donation was treated as being "made to a candidate, or to any person on the candidate's behalf, for use in the candidate's campaign for election" even though it was given some 4 months prior to Mr Ross formally being chosen to be National's champion in the Botany seat.

This is unusual because the candidate returns for other National Party candidates show that the Party was following a practice of gathering together individual donations to help elect the National candidate in an electorate and then handing these over to the candidate in one (or a few) block sums. This meant that all a candidate's return revealed was a chunk of cash arriving from "the NZ National Party", with no indication of who had originally funded that gift.

And National Party's President, Peter Goodfellow, defended the practice because, in his words:

"National is fundraising pretty actively throughout the three-year election cycle. People are donating to support a race before there's even a candidate selected."

So, if there wasn't an individual candidate selected for a seat then any money given form the purpose of helping elect a National Party MP in it couldn't be a "candidate donation" and so didn't have to be treated as such.

But if that's the case, then how come Mr Ross disclosed the donation from Mr Liu as being a "candidate donation" to him personally, rather than it being treated as a "party donation" to National (which would have had to be disclosed back in late-April 2014, at the height of the embarrassing stories about his relationship with the Party)?

Well, perhaps there's an explanation. Because the law defines a "candidate" as being not just someone who has been selected as one, but rather someone who has "declared his ... intention of becoming a constituency candidate". So if Mr Ross had done this before Mr Liu gave him the money then that donation would be a "candidate donation" - always assuming that Mr Liu really was giving it to Mr Ross for his local electorate campaign rather than to National as a Party generally.

OK. That would work. After all, Mr Ross was the sitting MP for Botany and it was clear that he wanted to remain MP after 2014, so I guess you can construct a claim that by August 2013 he'd "declared his ... intention" of being a candidate in November 2014. But here's the thing.

Jami-Lee Ross is the only sitting National Party MP who took this approach to donations in the 2014 election campaign. And he did so only in relation to one single donation - that from Mr Liu.

I've been through the returns of all the other sitting National Party electorate MPs who stood again in 2014, and none of them declared a single donation received before they were formally selected as a candidate. The earliest donation declared by any other sitting National MP was from Todd McLay, who got given $10,000 on 13 February 2014 ... after he was selected to run again in Rotorua. That's also more than six months after Mr Ross received "his" donation from Mr Liu.

So apparently Mr Ross was the only sitting National Party MP who somehow had "declared his ... intention" of being a candidate again in 2014 in a way that required him to disclose candidate donations before his formal selection took place. Quite how he managed to do this while all his other colleagues managed to avoid doing so is ... curious.

Furthermore, Mr Ross' return also disclosed his receipt of $24,296 from "the NZ National Party" on the 19 September 2014. Where exactly did that money originally come from? Because if any of it was given to Mr Ross (or to "any person on [Mr Ross'] behalf") after 15 August 2013 to help fund his campaign for election in Botany, and given in an amount of $1500 or more, then why wasn't it disclosed as a "candidate donation" in the same way as Mr Liu's was?

So apparently Mr Ross' Botany electorate organisation was able to attract $24,296 in funding to elect a National Party candidate in that seat without any other individual giving it more than $1500 after mid-August 2013. Quite how it managed to do this is ... curious.

There's probably enough wiggle room in this for Mr Ross and National to avoid legal trouble - even if the Electoral Commission shows any interest in what went on. Indeed, they will even be able to point to the fact that a couple of sitting Labour MPs - Kris Faafoi and Louisa Wall - declared candidate donations received before being officially selected as candidates, while Stuart Nash did similarly in Napier. You can expect the usual suspects will trot this out as evidence that Mr Ross was just doing what other candidates did.

But isn't it just so very, very curious that the donation most likely to cause the National Party the most amount of embarrassment in the lead up to the 2014 election got treated in a way so radically different to every other donation received by that Party and its candidates, thus allowing it to remain hidden from public sight until after the election is over? So very, very, very curious.

I wonder if someone out there other than a bored legal academic with access to a computer keyboard thinks so, too?