Jami-Lee Ross, MP for Botany, appears to be a somewhat odious character. Between his repeated betrayals of his wife, on the one hand, and his apparently quite-central role in National Party’s large-scale fundraising from PRC-affiliated sources (New Zealand citizens and not), there seems to be little that is at all appealing. And yet……for whatever reason (and since I’ve never heard an apology to the New Zealand public for his part in the process it is hard to believe it is totally public-spirited) he has been drip-feeding material to the media about the details of several such donations. The first involved non-English-speaking Auckland businessman and close affiliate of various CCP/PRC groups, Yikun Zhang. And this week we’ve had some details of the (previously disclosed) large donation from a New Zealand registered company owned and totally controlled by a PRC billionaire. And, amid these disclosures, he is now calling for law changes, to prevent some of the practices he was formerly so adept at, and apparently untroubled by. We should be thankful for small mercies, although it would be better if he – and all those involved – departed the political scene, and the swamp was drained.
On Twitter yesterday afternoon, Anne-Marie Brady drew her followers’ attention to the fact that Jami-Lee Ross was speaking on this issue in Parliament’s general debate – presumably one of his rare speaking opportunities, and no doubt the Herald story was timed with this slot in mind.
Two things were striking about this event. The first is that no other MP speaking after Ross even mentioned these issues. Sure, each MP has his or her own barrow to push, but it goes to the apparently general desire among our political parties to avoid confronting what has been, and no doubt is still, going on.
And the second – prompt for this post – was realising that despite the coverage given to the Todd McClay story on Monday, there seemed to be no media coverage at all, anywhere, to Ross’s speech. Perhaps I missed something, but I searched myself, and I checked the Politics Daily email listing compiled by Bryce Edwards, and couldn’t see a single mention. Sure, probably no one has much time for Ross personally, but the issues he is raising aren’t imaginary.
And so, since Hansard is in the public domain, here is Jami-Lee Ross’s speech.
JAMI-LEE ROSS (MP—Botany): A regulation we do need in this country is greater restrictions around foreign donations to political parties. Yesterday, we saw in the New Zealand Herald a very good example of how the current rules around donations do not work for our democracy. I don’t need to go into depth around that particular donation, but what it does highlight is how our current laws around donations are wrong. It’s true—I was one of the sources for that story. It’s true—I was able to outline for the journalists my phone records and email records and contacts around that particular donation, because at the time I was asked by someone who held ministerial office to collect the donation. I did so because I wasn’t “OIA-able”; the person that asked me to do so was subject to the Official Information Act (OIA).
The issue that that donation highlights is that our current laws do not adequately restrict the ability for foreigners to make donations to political parties. It is true that that donation in the Herald yesterday was lawful. It is true no laws were broken, but we’re in the business of making laws and fixing laws where they are wrong. It is wrong, in my view, for a foreigner who has interests in New Zealand, who wants to donate to a political party, to be able to utilise a New Zealand-based company. It is wrong for an individual who has no other links to New Zealand other than business through a company to be able to make a donation, and have influence by making that donation to a political party.
Our laws are wrong. In my view, if you are unable to influence an election by voting, you should be unable to influence an election or our democracy by making a donation. It’s a fairly simple concept, and it’s one that we should be looking at in this House. Correct, the donation was not unlawful; our law is wrong and needs to be changed.
When we talk about foreign interference, it’s very easy to look at donations, and look at the way in which we interact with people that have connections to foreign States, and just dismiss what might be going on. But when we look at it very clearly and carefully, when we try and understand the connections and the influences that people from offshore are trying to have on our democracy, it can be very chilling. Does anyone really believe that a Mongolian oligarch wants to, out of the goodness of his heart, make six-figure donations to a political party after meeting the person who has responsibility for the very policy that he’s interested in, when it comes to the exporting of livestock? I don’t think he did so out of the goodness of his heart. I don’t think any laws were broken, but I think we need to fix the system. We need to ensure our democracy is safe from foreign influences, and ensure that we tighten up the rules.
I’ve heard that there is a lot of support in the House for banning foreign donations. That’s great, but simply lowering the threshold from $1,500 down to zero will do nothing, because any foreigner, at any point in time that they wish, can set up a New Zealand company or use an existing one to make a large donation. We have politicians in this House, and those seeking election, that have a lot of connections to people that have offshore influences and offshore interests. We should ensure our democracy and our electoral laws are much tighter.
There is a foreign interference inquiry under way, through the Justice Committee. Unfortunately, that inquiry is going very slow. Unfortunately, the committee that is looking at that inquiry may report back too late for us to make changes to our electoral law. It’s important we move now and we move swiftly because election year is very close. That same committee is also looking at the Electoral Amendment Bill right now. Unfortunately, that Electoral Amendment Bill is too tight and does not allow the committee to consider foreign donations or consider donation laws at all. The very same people sitting on the inquiry are also considering that bill. It’s my view that the House should give that committee the power to look at donations; give those same people doing the inquiry around foreign interference and around elections the power to make recommendations around amendments to the Electoral Act, with regards to donations. We need to move on this. Election year is not far away. There is a very good example out there, and there will be many others, that foreigners—and we heard directly from the spy agencies yesterday at the select committee, in both an open session and then in much more detail in a secret session—about—
JAMI-LEE ROSS: —influences in our democracy, and we need to take them seriously.
I’m going to seek leave in a second to have a Supplementary Order Paper (SOP) in my name—SOP 324—which does seek to make some changes referred to the Justice Committee.
I seek leave for Supplementary Order Paper 324 in my name to be referred to the Justice Committee, and for the committee to, in its consideration of the Electoral Amendment Bill, have the power to consider, and if it thinks fit, adopt the amendment set out on SOP 324 or any other amendments relating to electoral donations.
SPEAKER: Is there any objection to that process? There is objection.
I thought the central line was this one
In my view, if you are unable to influence an election by voting, you should be unable to influence an election or our democracy by making a donation. It’s a fairly simple concept, and it’s one that we should be looking at in this House. Correct, the donation was not unlawful; our law is wrong and needs to be changed.
It isn’t clear how anyone could reasonably take a different view but – based on their comments this week – Simon Bridges (now heading off to Beijing) and Todd McClay do.
But the other key aspect was the Supplementary Order Paper Ross intends to introduce at the Committee stage of the Electoral Amendment Bill currently before the House. The link is here. As I understand it, the proposed amendments would prohibit anonymous donations and would allow donations only from registered electors in New Zealand (thus prohibiting donations to political parties from companies, unions, or any individual not eligible to vote in New Zealand). All of those sorts of changes make a great deal of sense to me. I hope Ross is able either to bring these amendments to a vote – which would force individual MPs to make an on-the-record choice about what influences they regard as acceptable – or perhaps up the pressure on the government – which has done precisely nothing about these issues, and was never keen on an open inquiry by the Justice Committee on foreign interference (government departments would tell the Committee all they needed to know, or so the PM’s office told us) – to propose serious reforms of its own. As you’ll see in the record from Hansard there was objection – apparently from National – which blocked Ross’s SOP being referred to the Justice Committee.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, by I still am anyway, that none of this seems to have been covered by our media. But I imagine that the PRC embassy will have taken note, and the welcome accorded to Bridges and Brownlee in Beijing will be a little warmer for knowing they are not willing to be pro-active and initiate or champion steps to fix these gaping holes in our electoral law.
And we are left wondering whether Todd McClay’s defence of the PRC’s conduct of Xinjiang was because of the large donations from regime-affiliated sources (including the Inner Mongolian one he was directly involved with) or because he genuinely believed it. It isn’t clear which option would be worse. Either way, the whole business reflects very poorly on McClay, his leaders, and his party. (And not much better on Ross.)