Jamie-Lee Ross has levelled a very serious accusation against Simon Bridges - which has yet to be confirmed. But its the way his actions are hurting our Politics we need to really worry about.

When Jamie-Lee Ross re-enacted The Joker’s “everything burns” scene from The Dark Knight in his press conference at Parliament, much was promised. Simon Bridges, we were told, had instructed him to divide up a $100,000 donation from a businessman into smaller, non-disclosable amounts. If established, that was not only the end of Bridges’ political career, but also the basis for potentially serious criminal charges.

Then, yesterday, Ross’ story changed at his press conference after visiting the police. This money had not actually been divided up by him personally (because, we should note, if Ross had done so then he would have been guilty of those potentially serious criminal charges). Rather, the donation had appeared in his electorate bank account already split into these smaller, non-disclosable amounts.

That raised the question, of course, as to who had done the splitting up. Because Ross had stated in his original parliamentary press conference that the businessman in question had done nothing wrong. Which would not be true if that businessman had been a party to the donation splitting.

Then Ross released his recorded conversation with Bridges, and things changed again. For that recording showed that while Bridges clearly had knowledge of a donation being in the offing, he didn’t seem to know much more about it than that. And in the recording Ross explicitly states this about the donation’s source: 

“the way they’ve done it meets the disclosure requirements – sorry, it meets the requirements where it’s under the particular disclosure level becausethey’re a big association and there’s multiple people and multiple people make donations, so that’s all fine.”

To me, this reads as though the businessman has told Bridges that the association he heads would like to support the National Party. The members of this association have then come together and chipped in individual donations that in total amount to $100,000, but none of which individually exceed the $15,000 public disclosure threshold. And that is all entirely legal.

It also would be legal for Bridges to indicate to (or even instruct) the association that he’d like the donation given in this way. It’s only if the businessman has funded the entire $100,000 amount himself, while getting friends and colleagues to transmit bits of it under their own name as “straw” donors, that the law will have been broken. But then the main party to that offending would be the businessman involved – whom, remember, Ross has said has done nothing wrong.

I assume that the Police investigation will focus on which of these fact patterns actually is true. That may involve getting production orders to trace the flow of funds to the Botany electorate account, as well as where those funds originated. So, any final judgment on all of this has to await the outcome of that investigation.

But for now, a word about the Politics of what we’re seeing here. I don’t mean “politics” in the sense of partisan battles over policy, or what will happen in the polls, or the like. For, as Bryce Edwards has so rightly noted, this whole saga is ultimately empty; “the meltdown has been about personalities, leadership and ambition.”

And the way this small-stakes, nothing-of-real-significance battle is being waged is harmful for our (capital P) Politics, in the sense of how we as a community collectively govern ourselves and decide what we ought to do as a nation. Ross clearly is operating from the play book of Simon Lusk, whom he has admitted to taking advice from. Lusk is, of course, most well-known for his appearances in the pages of Dirty Politics where he is caught boasting:

I’m just motivated to cut throats. Unfortunately the biggest buzz I get is when I wreck someone, only done it three times, but I was on a massive high

The raising of serious accusations that, upon closer inspection, seem to turn out to be far less than promised; only to then be replaced by a new set of accusations. The recording of conversations to get “dirt” that can be used at a later, unspecified date. The slow, drip-feeding of information designed to keep the story running rather than establish what actually has occurred. All of these are designed to do nothing more than visit personal destruction on a political enemy.

While there’s a certain irony in the National Party now being roiled by the tactics of some it held far too close for far too long, this episode ultimately is bad for us as a country. It’s not what our Politics, or our politics, should be. There is nothing to be won (and a whole lot to be lost) through it but the office and egos of small and petty personalities. 

So, based on what I’ve seen so far, I actually hope Bridges survives this onslaught and remains National’s leader. I hope that he and his party are soon able to return to arguing for their view of what New Zealand ought to be. I then hope they lose those arguments, because I disagree with them on many issues in a quite fundamental way. But I want them to lose on the arguments, not because of tactics designed to do no more than “wreck” someone.

Comments (8)

by Dennis Frank on October 18, 2018
Dennis Frank

Well okay, but seems to me it's a designer-created loophole in electoral law.  Either in the Bolger govt's Electoral Act 1993, or via subsequent amendments to it by the Key govt.  Posted to the Standard this morning:

"They had been tinkering a lot.
Electoral Amendment Act 2009
Electoral (Administration) Amendment Act 2010
Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010
Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Act 2010
Electoral (Administration) Amendment Act 2011
Electoral Amendment Act 2014

The interesting bit is the current section
209B Offences relating to return of candidate donations

which was amended a few times
Section 209B: inserted, on 1 March 2009, by section 6 of the Electoral Amendment Act 2009 (2009 No 1).
Section 209B(1): replaced, on 25 March 2014, by section 37 of the Electoral Amendment Act 2014 (2014 No 8).
Section 209B(1A): inserted, on 25 March 2014, by section 37 of the Electoral Amendment Act 2014 (2014 No 8).

Notice how quick the new government in 2009 was to work on its priorities."

So the National Party found a way to hide large donations:  tell donors to subdivide them, using collaborators to donate the subdivisions.  Alternatively, you could argue that the loophole was created inadvertently due to the natural incompetence of the lawyers used to draft legislation.  Such incompetence seeming to be a traditional flaw in the design of our democracy, oft exhibited via subsequent situations.

Since Bridges & his crew were discussing on the tape how many Chinese MPs the 100K donation is worth, settling on 2, they seem to be sending this market signal:  to buy a National MP, the cost is $50,000 each.  Cheap at that price, eh?

by KJT on October 18, 2018
KJT

The law currently allows for "buying" politicians. Whether it is electoral donations, Directorships and other positions after politics, or favourable publicity and free advertising.

Time the whole issue was addressed. Maybe public funding only in the basis of party membership? With a limit on fees.

Amazing how National came out with "Democracy under attack" when Labour tried to restrict buying, the political results you want.

Or, maybe we should bring it all out in the open. require MP's to wear their sponsers logos, as someone suggested for the USA.

Corruption is way too easy to get away with.

by Pat on October 18, 2018
Pat

As noted by Dennis the significant demonstration from this sorry event is the bargain basement price of a seat in our house of representatives.

The most surprising aspect of your article is the  lack of mention....is it really so unremarkable?

by Lee Churchman on October 19, 2018
Lee Churchman

And the way this small-stakes, nothing-of-real-significance battle is being waged is harmful for our (capital P) Politics, in the sense of how we as a community collectively govern ourselves and decide what we ought to do as a nation.

This is how things work now.

by Dennis Frank on October 19, 2018
Dennis Frank

I've been pondering the feasibility of police prosecution, in respect of these parts of the current electoral law:

“A party secretary must give back to the donor the entire amount of the donation, or its entire value, if the party secretary knows, or has reasonable grounds to believe, that the donor has failed to comply with subsection (2) in any respect.” http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1993/0087/latest/DLM1868307.html

“(2) If this section applies to a donation, the donor must, at the time of making the donation, disclose – (a) the fact that the donation is funded from contributions; and
(b) the following information about any contribution that, either on its own or when aggregated with other contributions made by or on behalf of the same contributor to the donation, exceeds $1,500 in sum or value:
(i) the name of the contributor; and
(ii) the address of the contributor; and
(iii) whether the contributor is an overseas person within the meaning of section 207K; and
(iv) the amount of the contribution or, in the case of aggregated contributions, the total amount of the aggregated contributions; and
(c) the total of all of the amounts disclosed under paragraph (b)(iv) in relation to the donation; and
(d) the total of all of the other contributions made in relation to the donation.”

The legalese appears to suggest that parliament agreed to legislate to identify any group donations that consisted of individual contributions, and the actual clauses specify how to do this. If the Nats failed to identify the group total (100k) in relation to the components and identity of the individual donors, the police can prosecute them on a sound basis. If the NP auditors signed their approval of the NP declaration, they can also be prosecuted likewise.

So who within the hierarchy of the National Party is responsible for the accuracy of their declaration of donations?  Just the secretary, or is the board culpable, and/or the leader?  So far we have discussions on record of the offer of a 100K donation, and receipt of that as subdivided amounts (seven of 14K, one of 2K), apparently designed to preserve anonymity of donors.  Yet the law requires identification of donors in respect of aggregate group donations.

Seems obvious those involved agreed to defeat the requirements of the clauses quoted, since the result clearly broke the law!!  The only way for the police to weasel out of prosecuting the NP is to say "hey, no pattern of deception evident here, move along please".  Will they?

by Katharine Moody on October 20, 2018
Katharine Moody

Also released on the 18th Andrew - so this might not have been available when you wrote the blog;

https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2018/10/read-jami-lee-ross-texts...

Surely, that's the question - who did provide those names and addresses that didn't match up with anyone on the electoral role?  Seems to me, as soon as that aspect of the donations was queried, the monies should have been returned to the senders bank account(s), as per JLR's suggestion to the party secretary.  And perhaps they eventually were - in that Paula Bennett stated that the party could not find those donations.  This should be pretty straight-forward for the police to investigate.

by Charlie on October 21, 2018
Charlie

As someone who has occasionally voted National, I'm not particularly concerned about the donations issue. Ethnic communities tend to form associations and give cash to their preferred political party.

To quote The Castle: "What is it with wogs and cash?"  :-)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cUR2ZjLlWQ

I'm sure if you delved into union funding of Labour you'd find similar issues. It's not a big deal and I'll bet a bottle of Otago Pinot Noir that the cops steer a mile clear of this mess and will do only a limited investigation.

What does worry me, just as you qouted from Bryce Edwards, are the ego-maniacs who get into politics for personal gain and ambition rather than for the good of the country...and that description seems to cover more than just Ross in this instance.

As regards disagreeing with National "in a most fundamental way", please let me in on the secret! What exactly does National stand for these days?

 

 

by Charlie on October 21, 2018
Charlie

oh and one more point:

From the media reports it seems Ross's personal behavior has been unacceptably poor for some time. The National Party should have taken disciplinary action against him years ago, then maybe they wouldn't be in this current mess.

So either the party doesn't t have a functioning mechanism for handling internal discipline or there is so much of it going on in Wellington that nobody was in a position to point fingers! 

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