The Serious Fraud Office charges four after investigation into political donations. PAT PILCHER wonders why National Party leader gets off scot-free.
Last year we were treated to a political fireworks display as then National MP, Jami-Lee Ross, and the party’s leader, Simon Bridges, had a very public falling out. You can read all about it here.
The fallout from the political bun fight was spectacular and included audio recordings of phone conversations between Bridges and Ross that were given to the police. In the recordings, donations to the party from a wealthy Chinese businessperson were discussed. This saw the Serious Fraud Office launching an investigation into the donations.
Ross – who is now an independent MP – accused Bridges of electoral fraud, saying that Bridges had asked him to collect a $100,000 donation from a wealthy Chinese businessman. He also alleges that the contribution was in amounts smaller than the $15,000 disclosure threshold mandated under New Zealand law. According to Ross, Bridges had said that the donation should not be made public.
Yesterday, the Serious Fraud Office announced that the investigation had completed and that four people had been charged. While name suppression issues mean that the Serious Fraud Office cannot disclose who the individuals are, it emerged that Bridges escaped any charges and wasted no time distancing himself from the situation. He was quoted by Radio New Zealand as saying that:
“I have always maintained I had nothing to do with the donations. As I have always said the allegations against both myself and the party were baseless and false.”
I don’t know about you, but in my opinion, it seems curious that Bridges would say this when the audio recordings (which, let’s face it, are pretty hard to refute) of him and Ross supplied to the media by Ross seem to show that Bridges was in the know about the donations.
Here’s what was said;
J-LR: [laughs] Hey um you know at Paul Goldsmith’s function you saw those two Chinese guys, Zhang Yikun and Colin? You had dinner at their home?
J-LR: They talked to you about a hundred thousand dollar donation –
J-LR: That is now in.
For Bridges to say to RNZ that he had nothing to do with the donations is – in my opinion, probably untrue. The recordings appear to indicate that Bridges knew full well that the monies had been received. Crucially, Ross explains to Bridges that the donation had been handled so that obligatory disclosure under the NZ laws could be avoided. For the Nats, I believe that this was probably seen as a good thing, given the potential for political fallout for the party for taking contributions from donors who could be part of a foreign government. Here’s what was recorded:
J-LR: Donations can only be raised two ways – party donation or candidate donation. Party donation has a different disclosure which is fine, and the way they’ve done it meets the disclosure requirements – sorry, it meets the requirements where it’s under the particular disclosure level because they’re a big association and there are multiple people and multiple people make donations, so that’s all fine, but if it was a candidate donation it’s different. So making them party donations is the way to do it. Legally, though, if they’re party donations they’re kind of under Greg’s name as the party secretary, so –
SB: So we need to tell them, I get that. I get that. I’m going to tell him – I think he’ll accept it, I just need to explain to him what it is I want it for. Uh, unless I get him to come along to, unless I get him to – leave it with me, I might talk to McClay as well, see what he’s got up his sleeve. Cause Peter is going to be at this meeting with me in Wellington, that’s all. If I then brought him after that – good work though man, that’s a lot of money.”
So despite telling Radio NZ otherwise, Bridges not only knew of the donation but appears to be fine with it being hidden after having it explained to him by Ross. In my view, this begs the question be asked – How has Bridges escaped any charges from the investigation?
New Zealand may be rated as one of the world’s least corrupt countries, but I’m beginning to wonder how it is that a political leader gets off scot-free despite what seems to be fairly compelling evidence of his possible guilt. No doubt more will come to light in late February when the four charged by the SFO go to trial.
Partisan politics aside, I believe that there are good reasons to be very concerned. Political donations are rarely made for philanthropic reasons. In the recordings, Ross says that at the dinner he and Bridges attended, the Chinese donors asked about getting a Chinese candidate. If this isn’t a political quid pro quo and cause for extreme concern, then what is? Moreover, this is backed up in the audio recordings supplied to the media by Ross:
J-LR: Yeah they’re good people. Now there’s no catch or anything to it. You may recall at the dinner they did discuss candidacy and another Chinese candidate.
SB: Two MPs, yeah.
J-LR: Colin Zheng, the younger one, he’s put his name in for candidates’ college and so I assume he’ll get through candidates’ college and we’ll just make some decisions as a party further down the track as to what we want to do with candidates.
SB: I mean, it’s like all these things, it’s bloody hard, you’ve only got so much space. Depends where we’re polling, you know? All that sort of thing. Two Chinese would be nice, but would it be one Chinese or one Filipino, or one – what do we do?
J-LR: Two Chinese would be more valuable than two Indians, I have to say.
Casual racism aside (which, let’s face it, isn’t a good look for an aspiring prime minister), questions need to be asked about why list MP positions were ever up for sale. Why does Bridges appear to be okay with what could be interference in New Zealand politics by a foreign power?
These questions are likely to get answered at the trials of the four people charged in late February. At the moment, a lack of transparency around the investigation means that the public doesn’t know what specific charges have been laid, nor against whom. The reality is that the SFO can’t say much, because the accused are likely to opt for name suppression in court and any leaks to the media could have a detrimental effect on the outcome of the trial.
If we are to take anything out of this sordid episode, it’s this: The laws around political donations need a drastic overhaul. The current levels of disclosure required by law are far too high. This means that political parties can easily hide large amounts of money donated by vested interests, while the public remains ignorant when at the polling booth on election day. The seriousness of this cannot be understated. If donated money goes into the coffers of a political party, it’s fair to say that the political party could find themselves beholden to a donor and this donor could be the asset of a foreign power who could, in turn, seek to compromise New Zealand’s political stability and national security. Putting it mildly, this is the thin end of a very rotten wedge that could see New Zealand’s political system corrupted along similar lines to the USA. There, political parties and candidates are often little more than obligated puppets to well-funded interest groups, and this has resulted in some particularly loopy laws and growing levels of socio-economic inequality and dysfunction.
Given the recordings seem to suggest Bridges’ complicity in the fraud investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, his position as the National Party leader may start to look increasingly untenable as the trial gets underway. As dirty laundry is aired by those charged, the Nats are going to need to work PR miracles if they are to reclaim any integrity in the lead up to the September general elections.