• The Story That Keeps On Giving

    The Jami-Lee Ross saga is the story that keeps on gIving. There may still be many more twists and turns in what has so far proved to be an unpredictable roller-coaster – the allegations of affairs and harassment, sexual and otherwise, continue to fly in all directions – but we may now be approaching the point when some analysis is possible of the story so far.

    It now seems clear that Jami-Lee Ross, for whatever reasons – perhaps a sense of personal grievance or a genuine sense of moral outrage – has from the outset embarked on a campaign to damage the National party and its leader. His initial claim – that Simon Bridges had broken electoral law in the way that major donations were handled – may not have been the main element in the case he wanted to mount against the National leader.

    It may instead have been bait for the media, to ensure that there would be a keen appetite for what was to be revealed when he played the famous recording of his telephone conversation with Simon Bridges. The point of that recording may not have been to establish that the donations were mishandled (though they may have been) but to reveal to the press and the public what sort of person was seeking to be Prime Minister.

    The damage suffered by Simon Bridges when the recording was heard came, not because of the evidence provided of corrupt practice – on that issue it disappointed – but from what it told us about the kind of politics practised by the National leader.

    It came not just from the language he used – not just the diction on this occasion but the vocabulary as well – but more importantly from the sentiments and attitudes he expressed.
    The revelation that was most serious was surely the unmistakable willingness to offer for sale seats in parliament to those willing to pay enough. This surprising and unedifying admission was compounded by the further comments he made about the ethnicity of those most likely to pay an inflated price for such a privilege.

    At the centre of the claims and counter-claims is the vexed question of a large donation that was – as is admitted by all parties – made by a Chinese businessman to the National party. No one is suggesting that Jhang Yikun did anything wrong in making the donation; the dispute is whether the donation, once made, was handled in accordance with the law and was for a legitimate purpose.

    It is worth pausing for a moment, however, to register the point that, sadly, it comes as no surprise that the donor at the heart of the dispute was Chinese. The reason for this is that in cultures less accustomed than our own to the rules as to how democratic politics should function, it is natural to assume that political support can be bought.

    I recall that when I was an MP in the British city of Southampton, it was common for constituents from immigrant communities who sought my help and advice to approach me bearing gifts of various values. They saw nothing wrong about expressing their gratitude for services rendered or anticipated in this way – I would be obliged, as gently as I could, to decline to accept the proffered inducements.

    It would clearly be a retrograde step and a blight on both our democratic system and our corruption-free reputation if such practices became endemic in our country. Donations on this scale, especially when concealed, can seriously distort our politics. The National party was hugely advantaged by gaining such resources to spend on staff, organisation and advertising that were not available to their rivals.

    The current saga is just one instance of the murky waters in which we could become swamped if the notion became established that the way to political influence lay through political donations.

    What is apparently accepted on all sides in the saga is that a major donation was made to the National party by Jhang Yukin who had earlier been the recipient of a significant honour recommended by a National government and was keen to have an associate elected to parliament.

    There was also a separate question as to whether other significant gifts were concealed by not identifying who the donors actually were. It now seems likely that names were invented to conceal the identity of the true donors who have been revealed as the millionaire businessman Aaron Bhatnagar in one case and, in another, as a group with links to the Exclusive Brethren, a religious group with, as they say, “form” in such matters.

    Again, it is not the donors who are at fault, other than perhaps in their failure to understand the unacceptability in our society of surreptitious gifts being used to buy influence in political decisions.

    The attitudes demonstrated by Simon Bridges have once again highlighted the risks we run as a result of our refusal to contemplate the public funding of political parties. Whether we like it or not, those parties are an essential part of our democratic infrastructure; their proper functioning is central to any democratic system worth the name. Without the structure provided by the political parties, we would not be able to choose between one potential government and another and the whole point of democratic general elections would be lost.

    The opposition to public funding seems to stem from the view that political parties are voluntary organisations which must be responsible for their own welfare and survival, and should not therefore look to the taxpayer for support. But this is unrealistic; their role as public institutions should not be obscured by the fiction that they are private associations.

    As the current scandal demonstrates, that fiction places us all at risk. We cannot afford to tolerate a situation where private money buys influence in public affairs. A properly functioning democracy is the responsibility of all of us; some of us might give up our time and effort to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place, but others should, as taxpayers, be ready to make a similarly valuable financial contribution to that essential purpose.

    Bryan Gould
    20 October 2018