One of these things actually isn't quite like the other

David Cunliffe's Trust and the Dinner at Antoine's were not the same. I wish they were, but they just aren't.

There's been a bit of lefty gloating going on around the traps about Patrick Gower's interview with John Key on The Nation, in which he sought to draw an equivalence between David Cunliffe's use of a trust to receive donations for his Labour leadership campaign and donations that National received back in 2010 and 2011 through a dinner held at "Auckland's pricey Parnell restaurant Antoine's".

(On that last point, check out Antoine's menu and the attached prices. This, remember, apparently is one of John Key's "favourite places to eat". That this fact does not at all seem to undermine the popular view of him as being "just like us" is a source of unending mystery!)

But much as I would love to grab a pitchfork and torch and follow in behind the crowd all the way to the door of Key's castle on a bleak mountain top (which is what he lives in, right?), my goddam conscience just won't let me do it. So I'm going to have to break ranks and say, "nice try, but not quite."

The asserted equivalence seems to be that Cunliffe's trust lumped together a bunch of money and passed it on to him in ways that did not reveal the individuals who donated it, whilst the "Dinner at Antoine's" likewise generated a bunch of money from individuals that then got passed on to the National Party without anyone getting to see who really gave it. That's true enough. But it's a superficial and misleading similarity.

Because the important difference is the intent in each case. Cunliffe's use of a trust was deliberately meant to enable individual gifts that otherwise would have to be declared to Parliament's registrar of pecuniary interests (which has a $500 threshold) to remain "faceless", in that it permitted only the Trust's gift to Cunliffe to be declared. It's the exact same strategem that the National Party used for years with its Waitemata Trust donation laundering vehicle - a practice that Labour criticised heavily at the time and enacted the Electoral Finance Act to stop (amongst other things). Which is why Cunliffe's decision to adopt the same strategy was so very, very silly.

In comparison, none of the individual donations made at the Dinner at Antoine's (in the form of a $5000 payment to attend) had to be declared to the Electoral Commission, as the threshold for declaring party donations was at that time $10,000 (its since gone up to $15,000). So there was no necessary reason for the donations to be bundled together  and passed over in one lump sum. It just seemed to happen that way because the owner of Antoine's got the attendees to first pay him for the dinner, then gave a single cheque to National a few days later, rather than the attendees writing out cheques to National directly. If they had done the latter - which would have been entirely legal - then we would not have had any record of the dinner taking place at all.

(Oh, and in case anyone's wondering how we know how many places any individual person bought, note that National's financial return for 2010 states that the donation from Antoine's was made up of "contributions" ... so National must have been told who each of the guests at the dinner were. And had any of these guests paid for more than one place at it, their identity would have had to be disclosed under s.210(1)(b) (as the disclosure threshold stood at that time). So the fact that no-one's name was disclosed tells us that each attendee paid for only one place.)

That's why Cunliffe's decision to use the Trust actually does feed into the whole "tricky" label that National is trying to pin on him. It was a strategem to avoid an outcome he did not want, in a way the Dinner at Antoine's episode was not.

Having said that, I don't think we should just shrug our shoulders at the Antoine's fundraisers (because there were two - one which brought in $100,000, the other $60,000) and say "move on, nothing to see here". Because what these did involve is the PM going along to a private dinner setting with a small group of people who all valued the opportunity to spend an evening of face-time with him enough to shell out $5000 for it ... and were legally able to do so without the public getting to see who they were.

The rationale for permitting this is that, in the scheme of fundraising for a political party's campaign, $5000 is such small change that it doesn't raise any real concern that you'll get anything in return for it. Indeed, it's only once someone gives $15000 in a year that we (now) require the political party tell the world who they are. Anything given below that amount is kept strictly between the donor and the party.

OK. That's fine. But let's say that the guest list for the Dinner at Antoine's got leaked. And let's say that it turned out six of the places around the table were taken by Chris Moller, Bruce Carter, Peter Cullinane, Nigel Morrison, Rod McGeoch and Brent Harman. (Note to Chapman Tripp or whomsoever may be asked to look at this paragraph - I am not saying that these individuals were at the dinner, but rather posing a purely hypothetical point for the purpose of academic discussion.) Would it not be of considerable public interest to know of that fact? In particular, would it not be relevant to us that (in the purely hypothetical case discussed) members of SkyCity's Board of Directors had given National $30,000 between them prior to the last election, so that they could spend an evening in private conversation over dinner with the PM? And then let's say that each of their wives also had chosen to buy a place at the table in their own names - adding another $30,000 to the pot.

I'm not saying that this was what the Dinner at Antoine's was all about. It probably wasn't - more likely it was an amalgam of social climbers and old friends taking the chance to hang out with a guy who is (by all accounts) good company. What I am saying, however, is that because New Zealand has set the legal disclosure level for donations to political parties at such a high level, we may never know if and when such a dinner ever does take place. And that, I think, is a problem.