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Dr Muriel Newman

Corruption in Parliament

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Allegations of corruption in New Zealand’s Parliament have now escalated to new heights. During a radio interview this week, Tariana Turia described how the Maori Party was offered $250,000 in return for supporting the Labour Party after the election. This “inducement” was intended to secure Labour the numbers to govern.

To say that politics in New Zealand has been seriously tainted through accusations made against Members of Parliament over the last few months is a gross understatement. The genesis of these ructions is the claim that Labour engaged in a “corrupt practice” by deliberately using taxpayers’ money from their Parliamentary budget to pay for their election pledge card instead of campaign funds.

Section 214 B of the Electoral Act deals with election expenses, outlining the spending limits that apply to political parties (to view the Act click here).

It is section (3) that describes what constitutes a ‘corrupt practice’:

Every person who directly or indirectly pays or knowingly aids or abets any person in paying for or on account of any election expenses any sum in excess of the maximum amount prescribed by this section is,—

(a) if the act is done with knowledge that the payment is in excess of the maximum amount prescribed by this section, guilty of a corrupt practice; and

(b) in any other case, guilty of an illegal practice unless the person proves that he or she took all reasonable steps to ensure that the election expenses did not exceed the maximum amount prescribed by this section.

To avoid claims of corrupt practice, Labour would have to show that they were not aware of the problem with their pledge card. However, the evidence shows that they were very much aware that the cost of the pledge card should have been included within their election campaign spending cap as they had been advised of that fact by the Chief Electoral Officer himself.

On 30 August 2005 the former Chief Electoral Officer, David Henry contacted the Labour Party regarding their pledge card pointing out that it didn’t have any party authorisation on it (failing to properly authorise political advertising is a breach of Section 221 of the Electoral Act). Labour responded by claiming that authorisation was not required since it had been funded from Labour’s taxpayer funded Parliamentary budget. But Mr Henry advised that the pledge card was an election expense, which meant that the $446,000 expenditure had to be included within their campaign spending limit.

They didn’t, so the Chief Electoral Officer took the unusual step of lodging a complaint about the matter with the Police. In spite of finding a prima facie case against Labour, the Police chose not to pursue the case, claiming that a police investigation could impact negatively on the integrity of last year’s election.

While the illegal pledge card issue relates to a breach of the Electoral Act, the alleged bribing of a Member of Parliament is a matter covered by the Crimes Act.

According to Tariana Turia, the offer of $250,000 in return for giving their vote to Labour after the election came through a third party who was well known to the Maori Party. This trusted friend and messenger apparently met the Labour Party ‘benefactor’ – who is understood to live outside New Zealand – on a boat. While the Maori Party has said they gave no consideration to accepting the offer, they did admit to having two meetings with the messenger.

The bigger issue here is that a Labour Party donor was trying to buy the outcome of the election by offering a financial inducement to a Member of Parliament. That is clearly against the law.

Section 103 of the Crimes Act deals with “Corruption and bribery of member of Parliament” and clause (2) states:

Every one is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years who corruptly gives or offers or agrees to give any bribe to any person with intent to influence any member of Parliament in respect of any act or omission by him in his capacity as a member of Parliament. (click here to view the Act).

I asked Bill Hodge, Professor of Law at Auckland University, how serious these allegations are. He replied:

“From a constitutional point of view, the first task to focus on the relevant statute. Although there has been much discussion lately of the Labour Party’s use of Parliamentary Services’ funding for its election campaign – and I do not hesitate to call that “corrupt” – this latest allegation has nothing to do with the campaign and campaign funding as such.

“This allegation falls into the more serious – I think much more serious – basket of ‘Corruption and bribery of member of Parliament’, which is in section 103 of the Crimes Act 1961.

I would say, based on what has been reported, that Ms Turia has described a prima facie case of ‘corruption and bribery’ under section 103, since the offer would effectively be buying support for a party which could not govern without third party support, and thus is effectively buying the Government. That is at least a prima facie case, or a case to answer on its face, and there is enough there, without more, for the Police to investigate. There are lots of crimes, which are investigated by the Police – such as smuggling and drug dealing – without any complaint being laid. I don’t see the need for a complaint myself”.

This brings a new level of problems for the Maori Party and the Labour Party. The mere fact that Ms Turia revealed the bribery offer as a casual off the cuff remark in a radio interview indicates that she does not appreciate the seriousness of the offer that was made to her.

It is a problem for the Labour Party, because they have been promoting the somewhat tenuous links between the Exclusive Brethren and the National Party. Politicians receive approaches from lobby groups trying to influence policy choices all the time, with some hiring professionals to stalk the corridors of power seeking the ear of those with influence. But the difference here is that the alleged donor of the $250,000 was intending to buy a coalition outcome and that is quite different from a lobby group attempting to influence the policies of a political party.

The Labour Party now finds itself in the position of having ‘links’ to a ‘dollars for votes’ scandal of much greater magnitude than the activities of the Exclusive Brethren about whom they have been so critical. The key will be to find out more about those links and whether any member of Labour’s Caucus, party or Board knew of the $250,000 offer.

That is now the crux of the matter.

It is scandals of this nature that bring down governments. The public will have no confidence in any government linked in any way to political corruption and should links be established between the anonymous donor and the Labour Party then the Governor General should intervene and call a fresh election.

The poll this week asks whether you believe the Police should investigate this prima facie case of “corruption and bribery”?