Tuesday, 1 May 2012

And the problem with political donations is …

In the last week alone the only political stories that seem to have mattered involve political donations, political favours, and behind-the-scenes revelations about the way deals are done in this cosy little banana republic of ours.

  • How much did Kim DotCom give John Banks, and what for?
  • How much did Sky City’s Tony O’Brien give John Banks, Mike Hosking, Len Brown and John Key—and what did he expect in return?
  • What did Sky City’s Tony O’Brien discuss with Labour David Shearer over wine and dinner, and who exactly will wind up with the tab?
  • Who spoke to whom first about splitting their donation into two cheques so it could be anonymous?
  • Who spoke to whom about Kim DotCom’s mansion?
  • Who spoke to whom first about bankrolling a convention centre?
  • Who spoke to whom first about what political favours might be granted in return for a mostly unsubsidised building?

The basic question seems to be “How much did donors give?” And “What did they get, or expect to get, in return?”

At the same time Duncan Garner has raised concerns about the access and anonymity of lobbyists who have been granted perpetual, free, and anonymous access to parliament to put their clients’ wishes in the ear of politicians who might favour them.  And we have heard lobbyists like Mai Chen, who has momentarily fallen out of favour, whinging about the access now given to others that she once enjoyed with a different regime.

Politics costs money, and our politicians are knee-deep in the stuff. And if you listened to or read all the editorials, commentary and hand wringing from political opponents about all this, you’d be hand wringing with them saying “something must be done.”

But what the editorial writers, commentators and out-of-power politicians haven’t yet grasped about the problem is that it is the very system they endorse that increases both the magnitude and importance of the problem.

Consider: There are arguments about whether donations follow policy or policy follows donations, and it's frankly impossible for anyone but the donor to know which is which and whether they're getting value for money.

Which points to the real problem here, doesn’t it: not that rules about lobbyists and political donations need to become tighter, or more rigorous, or that lobbyists or donors should all be named—no matter how small or insignificant the donations, or how dull and incompetent the lobbyist—or even that a register of lobbyists and donors is drawn up. 

The real problem here is that politicians have almost unlimited power to deliver policy and favours in which donors and pull peddlers are interested. Policies that so often deliver special privilege, or special favours, or monopoly interest, or—in the case of Kim DotCom having to pull favours just so he could buy a house, for example—sometimes just to simply allow someone to do something that in a free country they should every right to do, without having to ask some busybody’s permission.

So the real problem here should be clear.

The problem is not with the donations themselves. The problem lies with the power politicians have to deliver those special privileges.

Or to put it another way: The problem is not chiefly that policy might follow donations, but that politicians have the power to deliver the policies favoured or asked for by special interests.

That’s what really stinks. And that’s why political donations smell.

Looked at dispassionately, political donors aren’t usually giving money just because they like the cut of someone’s jib.  That’s not why the racing industry donated to New Zealand First, or why Fletcher Building donated to the National Party. They’re simply doing what needs to be done in a system in which the monstrosities they donate to have the power of life or death over their businesses.

And lobbyists don’t spend time pouring alcohol down politicians’ throats because they like the pleasure of their company. (And if they did, you would really have to question their judgement.) They do it because they get paid to cosy up to politicians so those paying them can extract a cosy deal themselves from the friendship.

So this is the real problem which the hand wringers need to face up to--that there are no restrictions whatsoever on how much politics can do once they have power, no limit to the favours politicians can dispense, and as long as that remains the case and as long as they have unlimited power and virtually unlimited support to use it for meddlesome ends, then the temptation will exist to buy politicians to direct that meddling in donors’ favour.

This is not an argument then to restrict donations. It is not an argument to ban or register lobbyists.  (These people, the “pull peddlers” and the bag men, are just the inevitable cockroaches who take advantage of the looters' own system.) What this is, is a very good reason for the levers of political power to pull so much less weight than they do now. It is a good reason to place constitutional restrictions on politicians, to tie them up. It is a good reason, not to restrict us in how much we can spend on our favoured party when it’s trying to win power at election time, but instead on how much parties can do once they have power.

In short, if you don’t like political donations being used to influence politicians, then don’t support a system that gives politicians so much influence. Because as PJ O'Rourke says,

When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.

Isn't that the point right there in a nutshell?

Restrict the range of areas in which legislators can meddle, and you immediately lessen the interest in buying political power.

Remove the power of government to take away your property, or to command your obedience, and the influence of pull peddlers and bag men would disappear – and so would they.

If you  really do want to control the power of bag-men and lobbyists to pull down political favours, then you need to get your head around limiting the power of government to grant them.  You need to understand the corruption of the mixed economy.

If you want to get rid of the influence of lobbyists and their minions, then we have to return our government to its sole legitimate purpose: the protection of individual rights.

And if you don’t want to do that, then when stories like those of the last week keep emerging, as they will , then just suck it up. And stop whinging.


  1. A great commentary on this situation. Why isn't it obvious to more people.
    This is where we need a strong political party whose total focus is on less govt interference and influence in our daily lives. A party of citizens who don't look for the power of the party, but the power of the individual.

  2. And what favours do the unions expect for funding David Shearer and teh Labour Party?

  3. I watched a John Stossel special on youtube last night entitled, "Crony Capitalism".

    I think if America is neck deep in it, we're up to our eyeballs.


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