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Do political donations “buy” meaningful influence?

In brief

  • Donors naturally tend to give to organisations aligned with their preferences. Would you expect anything different?
  • Isn’t the suggestion, without any proof, that  something is wrong if the recipient is a political party instead of, say, a charity, just a conspiracy theory?
  • All parties have examples of questionable deals and nepotism, but rarely is there any hard link to a donation.

Much ado about nothing

The moral panic about cash for access to political parties, fueled by commentators like Bryce Edwards and others, raises questions about the influence of money in politics. 

One common narrative suggests that left-leaning parties are disadvantaged due to loose donation rules, which tend to favour wealthier supporters of right-leaning parties. This concern is echoed by senior research fellow Max Rashbrooke of Victoria University of Wellington. However, even he admits that, “while money matters in New Zealand, it’s not necessarily a straightforward relationship.”

Yet, many believe that donations to political parties result in significant benefits, without concern for hard evidence. But how different is a political party from a charity? You might give either of them money, expecting nothing in return but that they continue with the work that aligns with your values.

People donate to parties whose policies they prefer

While there have been such instances as gang members campaigning for parties and significant donations from wealthy individuals,  it is not easy to pin down any specific benefits or favours received in return. 

There is scant evidence of direct influence on political decisions on the left or the right for a specific donor.

It is not surprising that businesses tend to support parties which promote business growth. Similarly, unions and left-wing groups tend to support parties backing policies friendly to them. Do you see anything wrong with that?

A few examples from across the political spectrum

Do political donations “buy” meaningful influence? - Centrist
It’s true that people throw a lot of money at political parties, but it doesn’t necessarily get you a seat at the policy table. More rather, it ensures the political party you like has the funds to do things you generally agree with.

NZ First’s Shane Jones is the latest target of the media, all a twitter  over big money influence in politics. This is in regards to the government’s Fast-track Approvals Bill. However, in this case, media reports insinuate nepotism may be at play. That may be but, sadly, there are plenty of examples on both sides of the political divide. 

Even in recent cases like Meng Foon’s appointment and subsequent resignation from the office of Race Relations Commissioner, there’s no evidence his donation to Kiri Allan secured him the job. 

National’s pledge to rollback smoking restrictions was campaigned on and is just as likely a popular reaction to nanny state politics as it is the result of a quid pro quo with Big Tobacco. In any event, if the public  doesn’t like the look of it, they can factor it into their voting.

If money really buys influence, then more money buys more influence

Some of the supposedly eyebrow-raising donations, which are almost always $100,000 or less, pale in comparison to other spending, such as the $55m spent by the Public Interest Journalism Fund for partisan projects. At least the individuals/groups contributing to political parties are using their own money. 

Stuff (Stuff Circuit), received nearly $5m to promote its projects, many of which are unabashedly partisan.  To keep the total of these private donations(the low millions) in perspective, nearly $100m was spent by the Labour led government during the 2022 financial year alone on advertising. There was a nearly 200% increase in government spending on advertising since Labour came to office in 2017. Is it possible that kind of money might influence media that the same government should continue?

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