Monday, June 2, 2014

On Very Wealthy Men Buying Political Parties

On Thursday, the Prime Minister decided to describe Kim DotCom as "a very wealthy guy trying to buy a political party".

Now, ordinarily I'd be inordinately tempted to just discount out of hand as ribald sledging virtually anything the PM said about his most enduring political opponent ... but then I remembered that when it comes to very wealthy guys attempting to buy political parties, John Key is in a pretty uniquely experienced position to tell us what's what.

Let's start back in 2005, an election wherein "very wealthy guys" seemed to pop up like mushrooms to finance or otherwise contribute to the National Party's campaign, necessitating questions about who was *really* in control of National's policy agenda.

Flashing forward to 2011, National picked up absolutely incredible quantities of money from various Chinese business donors - the figure cited in the hyperlink is more than a hundred thousand dollars inside eight days, the majority of which came from a small little company nobody's ever heard of, called Oravida, and which was deposited four days after the election on November 30th. I also wasn't aware, up until researching this part of the story, that Oravida was actually set up by Terry Lee, a figure closely associated with the Shanghai Pengxin bid to buy up the Crafar Farms.

While we're talking Crafar, there's also the small matter of the $200,000 worth of donations to National from a Chinese husband-and-wife team closely associated with both Jack Chen's Natural Dairy NZ attempt at acquiring the Crafar Farms, as well as then-Cabinet Minister Pansy Wong.

(Pansy Wong's dumping as a Minister, you may recall, eventuated as the direct and attributable result of her facilitating her husband's commercial ventures in China, including the use of taxpayer funded travel and her position as a Minister for her husband's commercial gain. Now where have we heard that before?) 

And then National (in the persons of Minister Maurice Williamson, whom we'll be meeting later in this piece, in the company of Donghua Liu; and Jonathan Coleman, whom we'll also be meeting later, in the company of British American Tobacco) engaged in some questionable executive conduct to get the sale approved.

Looks interesting, doesn't it.

More recently, we've been treated to the unwholesome spectacle of a bunch of "very wealthy men" doing something even worse than "trying to buy a political party":

They've been successfully buying the attentions and action of the whole bloody government, in the form of having Ministers of the Crown literally go out of their way to help the donors in question, and other special treatment.

The Donghua Liu case really gets to the heart of what's going on here: a wealthy man takes advantage of his exclusive connections within Nat circles in order to have official advice overturned, non-compliant officials put in the cross-hairs of Ministerial attention, and a potential appearance of endorsement of commercial projects into the bargain - all for the relatively modest sum of $22,000 .

In this case, it's then-Minister Maurice Williamson, alongside then-Mayor of Auckland and present-day National-linked Satrap of ACTistan John Banks (whom we'll also be meeting later, both in the company of a certain "very wealthy man trying to buy a political party" and again lobbying officials and Ministers on behalf of the donor) successfully lobbying the Immigration Minister to go against official advice and approve Liu's application for NZ citizenship; followed up by his friend-in-high-places intervening on Liu's behalf to question a "senior police officer" about whether the Police were really sure they were "on solid ground" in pursuing Liu over domestic violence charges. Williamson's grounds for intervening are telling: according to the officer in question, Inspector Gary Davey, his grounds for doing so were that "Mr Liu is investing a lot of money in New Zealand". How about that. 

No catalogue of the nefarious linkages between wealthy businessmen and the National Party would be complete, however, without an attempt at crying foul over spilled milk in relation to the ongoing Oravida Affair.

This is pretty much the apotheosis of "very wealthy men buying political parties" in New Zealand right now, and features what appears to be an impressively long-running campaign by Oravida to inculcate its influence - and the appearance of having influence - in the highest corridors of power in the land. 

In this case, things appear to have started with a golf game. Oravida's high-ups apparently decided to pay $56,600 in order to tee up a round of golf with the Prime Minister. Photos of said golf game were then splashed across Oravida's website, as part of the latter's ongoing efforts to flaunt its close connections and ease-of-access with important Kiwi politicians. 

The golf game also looks rather dodgy from the Kiwi-side perspective. Think about it this way - what's happened here isn't (as initially claimed by National) a very wealthy man winning a charity auction for a game of ball-sticks in a field somewhere avec a National notary as the prize ... it's a very wealthy man spending more than fifty thousand dollars to buy several hours of the Prime Minister's time in a secluded location so they're able to talk privately. This sort of scandal is known as "cash-for-access", and while we'll meet a more widespread instance of such later in this piece with the Cabinet Club, the Oravida example goes well above and beyond the usual donation-for-a-spot-of-lunch-with-someone-important - both in terms of its brazenness (usually the participants don't brag about this sort of engagement all over their websites), and the scale and scope of the "access" involved. 
We then had a series of interesting revelations concerning the timing of Oravida's attempts to smooth Chinese border security requirements, the identity of Mrs Collins' anonymous dinner partner (a Chinese customs & border control official, apparently - from the AQSIQ), and a subsequent backhander donation to the National Party to pay for it all.

Never mind the singularly impressive cavalcade of Nat MPs, party functionaries, and even Prime Ministers (yes, that's an intentional plural) whom Oravida was able to wheel out for the grand openings of its offices; or the way it was then able to monetize these connections - this access - into advertising revenue for its milk, scampi and general (literal) brand ambassadorship ... as you can see here, by seeking governmental assistance in easing border restrictions, then receiving (clandestine) governmental assistance in the person of Collins to personally lobby an AQSIQ official to secure this, the Oravida affair crossed the line from "cash for access" into full-blown "cash for influence".

With the meter running into the tens of thousands of dollars for the purposes of Prime Minister-rental and Collins-deployment, and a time-span stretching for about three years from initial deposit to final pay-off, it seems fair to state that this was less an instance of Oravida paying for the services of senior Cabinet members by the hour, and more one of their having "bought" a political party - or at the very least, having entered into an incredibly long-term, easy-conditions lease of one.

Of course, there are potentially worse things than Oravida lurking out there in the political wilderness. At least when it came to *that* instance of very wealthy men purchasing a political party, we knew exactly who was involved - and, for the most part, when.

The problem associated with National's "Cabinet Club", and Key's expensive fundraiser dinners at Antoine's, is that because the admission fee to these events is below the fifteen thousand dollar threshold at which donations must be declared, the general public has literally no idea which "very wealthy men" out there have been stumping up something like $165,000 for some intimate personal time with the PM.

At least when the Maori Party pulled the same trick down at the Northern Club, we found out pretty sharpish whom the moneyed hands were who could afford to contribute $5,000 a head in order to play musical chairs for best "ease of conversation", "confidentially" with the Prime Minister.

Now let's be clear about all of this. There is absolutely no problem, in a representative democracy such as ours, with ordinary citizens like you and me managing to talk to an MP or Minister, and getting their help in our affairs. Indeed, the entire system is built around exactly this - egalitarian access to the movers and shakers of our polity, so as to allow the citizenry to move and shake things (or at least, to have some input into what's moved, and who's shook).

The problem arises when some small coterie, cabal, or company of citizens (or, as the case may be, Permanent Residents) manage to use their resources and propinquity - whether fiscal, physical, or some other mechanism entirely - to secure access or influence over our nation's decision makers in the way the rest of us cannot. Because then, well ... money talks - and the danger is that it talks far louder and more effectively than those of us who must go cap-in-hand to our elected representatives.

The examples in this piece thus far have all shared a number of points in common: "very wealthy men", or the friends and families of National Party Cabinet Ministers, parlaying their financial resources or familiar ties into opportunities for access or influence - indeed, into actual outcomes - that would not be ordinarily possible for any other New Zealander.

That's why so many Kiwis find National's antics over donations recently to feel "not right" in the gut. Because we know this isn't how a system that theoretically runs on a principle of "one man, one vote" and "Jack is as good as his 'master'" is supposed to work.

We all know that certain groups in Kiwi society tend to have closer links to politicians and political parties - think the Business Round Table with ACT/National, or some unions with the Labour party. Indeed, for the best example going of small groups exerting questionably accountable (or transparent) influence over the policy process and politician-access of political parties, look no further than each party's Youth Wing.

With the occasional exception of right-wing commentators and spectators whinging over the allegedly plenipotentiary role of the unions in connection with the Labour party, nobody seriously alleges that this represents a fraught or iniquitous situation that's injurious to democracy. This is at least partially because everything's supposedly conducted above board and with a reasonable appearance of transparency - we know, for the most part, who's paid what, to whom, and for what. We also generally expect particular parties to "go in to bat" for "their" sectional interest groups, and are entirely unsurprised (even a little reassured) when this is what winds up happening.

This doesn't mean such a system is perfect, of course - pretty much all the donations cited so far in this article were, to quote the Politician's standard universal warding talisman "well within the rules". It also doesn't mean that parties and politicians intervening to help out particular individuals rather than generalized classes or demographics is anything to axiomatically get wildly concerned about.

However, the easygoing nature of our polity and public attitudes to same is entirely contingent upon the appearance that there's nothing dodgy going on. As soon as that appearance is called into question, our tenuous faith in the system - that everybody really does have mostly equal legal/theoretical opportunity of access to essential state and political assistance - starts to go out the window; and with it, our engagement with that system. Because what's the point of playing the game when the odds are so hugely stacked against you by the very fact that you haven't got the resources to pour into accessing what's theoretically your birthright that the wealthy guys already winning said game, at your expense, do.

That's what Key's trying to do here with his "[he's] a very wealthy guy trying to buy a political party" quip. Demonstrate that DotCom, contrary to his self-appointed title as the "Visionary" of a new pan-left political grouping dedicated to improving access to the state and political system for hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Kiwis ... is actually in reality no different from a latter day Bob Jones or Owen Glenn.

Somebody who wants to take shortcuts and skirt around the actual ins-and-outs of democratic procedure to go straight to the top for the outcome he wants, and jump the queue of other (moneyed) supplicants.

Back in 2010, this appears to have been pretty much the case. DotCom appears to have paid his $50,000 (or, if we're of a mind to pay attention to Banks' legal defence, two donations of $25,000 each) to John Banks at least partially to secure his and Maurice Williamson's help in getting official approval for DotCom's acquisition of the Coatesville mansion he now resides in.

A Cabinet Secretary of Lincoln's by the name of Simon Cameron once opined that the definition of an "honest" politician was one who, when bought will stay bought. In addition to the more conventional ones associated with not outright lying to the general public, Banks also failed this test of honesty in rather spectacular fashion.

When DotCom called him for help with the furnishings of his more modest and recently acquired real estate (i.e. a small cell in Mt Eden Prison), he was unceremoniously told where to go.

So in a nutshell, then ... Dotcom tried the overt "buy influence" route; found that Washington had outbid him; and has therefore today decided to attempt to enter the political market place straight at the top - as a "vendor" rather than "purchaser" of political influence, if you will.

Given his appalling experiences to date with attempting to play the system the Nats have set up - cash for influence & outcomes - I almost can't blame him for trying to subvert the game entirely by choosing to play his own. And, while having a mega-millionaire bankroll a political party out of his own effectively limitless pockets is arguably a pretty substantial departure from the egalitarian principles our representative democracy is often held to run on - when you sit down and consider all the other instances of "very wealthy men" attempting to buy, rent, or otherwise co-opt political parties over the last ten years ... suddenly, a very wealthy man who's completely 100% straight-up about what he's doing with his money in our politics and why ... well, that no longer seems quite the worst thing in the political world.

Even if it is being done by Colin Craig

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