New Zealand to Limit Foreign Political Donations on Interference Concerns

New Zealand to Limit Foreign Political Donations on Interference Concerns
New Zealand flags fly in front of The Beehive during the Commission Opening of Parliament at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand on Oct. 20, 2014. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Isabel van Brugen

New Zealand moved to ban foreign donations to politicians and tighten disclosure rules for political advertising, as concerns over foreign interference intensify ahead of an election next year.

News that the legislation was introduced to Parliament on Dec. 3 was announced by Justice Minister Andrew Little in a statement.

The bill prohibits foreigners from making donations to political parties and candidates of more than NZ$50 ($32), a fraction of the current NZ$1,500 threshold.

“There’s no need for anyone other than New Zealanders to donate to our political parties or seek to influence our elections,” Little said. “The risk of foreign interference in elections is a growing international phenomenon and can take many forms, including donations. New Zealand is not immune from this risk.”

Ahead of New Zealand’s next general election in late 2020, the legislation would also require the publication of the names and addresses of individuals funding election advertisements in all mediums—it’s a bid to minimize the “avalanche of fake news social media ads” that has marred elections overseas, Little said.

Party secretaries must also reside in New Zealand, “to make it easier to enforce parties’ compliance with the donations rules,” the government release states.

“The Justice Select Committee has heard there are credible reports of interference campaigns in the elections of other countries, and these attempts are increasing in their sophistication,” Little said.

The justice minister argued that New Zealand must be protected from this “risk to our democracy.”

“We need to protect the integrity of our elections. These changes will reduce the risk of foreign money influencing our election outcomes,” he added. “We don’t want our elections to go the way of recent overseas examples where foreign interference appears to have been at play.”

Questions about New Zealand political donations were raised in 2018, after a lawmaker accused the leader of the opposition National Party of hiding a NZ$100,000 donation from a Chinese businessman to avoid declaring it. The National Party leader rejected the charge.

The ban of foreign donations to political parties and candidates in New Zealand follows similar moves in Australia, which bans donations from foreigners of more than A$1,000 ($679), while Canada bars those over C$20 ($15), and the United Kingdom blocks those over 500 pounds ($641).

New Zealand’s ban would cover those who aren’t citizens, those living outside New Zealand who aren’t eligible to vote, as well as unincorporated companies with a head office overseas.

Last year, the ruling Labour Party had received a total of NZ$900 ($576) in foreign donations, while the Green Party collected a total of NZ$510, according to figures from a Ministry of Justice publication.

Bill Raises Concerns

News of the legislation in New Zealand has sparked concern from academics, who say more can be done to safeguard the region against foreign interference.

“A good start, more needs to be done to make our democracy resilient against foreign interference,” New Zealand professor Anne-Marie Brady said on Twitter.

Brady, who specializes in Chinese domestic and foreign politics at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, shared a link to a document she authored and submitted to the Inquiry on Foreign Interference, New Zealand Parliament, Justice Select Committee, in April. The paper details what must be done to protect against foreign interference “seeking to undermine our political system.”

She highlighted that funding is “only one part of addressing the problem of foreign interference in the electoral process.”

“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] united front work operates at all levels of targeted foreign polities,” she wrote.

The country must adopt comprehensive laws against corruption and to manage lobbying activities, Brady said. “It should establish an Anti-Corruption Commission and properly resource it.”

A “Conflict of Interest Legislation” should also be passed, which would push for financial transparency, Brady said, adding that it should be required that an annual financial disclosure be submitted by members of Parliament, leaders of political parties, local politicians, and their spouses.

“They should also be required to provide an annual disclosure of paid overseas trips by foreign organisations,” Brady wrote, adding that due diligence on all donations should be a requirement for political parties.

Brady said the Electoral Commission should also make it a requirement that political parties provide evidence they have “vetted candidates” for political risk.

The professor also pushed for the strengthening of New Zealand’s cyber defense capacities against the hacking of candidates or political parties’ private emails by foreign powers in China.

When visiting China, Brady suggested that New Zealand local and national politicians and political parties “take only a burner phone, leave laptops and tablets at home or take a standalone device, set up a dedicated email for the China trip, avoid public wifi, use Tor or other secure browser, purchase a reputable VPN, utilise encrypted email and messaging services.”

Any devices taken to China should either be “rebuilt” or “discarded,” Brady said.

“Getting the China relationship right is going to be one of New Zealand’s greatest foreign and domestic policy challenges in the next few decades.”

Reuters contributed to this report.
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
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