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Election donations under microscope with full disclosure imminent

The Coalition Government’s pro-industry agenda has seen opposition and environmental groups scrutinize donations from major parties and candidates already published by the Electoral Commission.

The deadline to submit party donations under $20,000 came and went Tuesday, and the commission says it will make them public as soon as they are fully compiled.

It is expected to be later Friday or early next week, but as of noon Thursday the commission said three parties had yet to submit their donation paperwork.

Perhaps the Government’s biggest controversy so far is fast-track consent, which either cuts unnecessary red tape or constitutes a war on the environment, depending on who you ask.

Resource Management Reform Minister Chris Bishop published the list of organizations that received letters about the fast-track application process in mid-April.

There were 182 organizations on the list. The vast majority (119) were Māori groups, who sent letters after expressing concern or wanting more details about the plan.

The second largest group were property developers, including two high-profile National Party donors.

The most obvious donor on the list was NZX-listed Winton Group (not the South Island town, as some speculated).

Winton is a large-scale real estate developer led by Chris Meehan, who donated $103,260 to National in August 2023.

This followed a $50,000 donation to Act earlier in the year and a $52,984 donation to National in 2022.

Winton has been fighting tooth and nail to gain approval for his 5000-property Sunfield subdivision in south Auckland and, without hesitating to seek a lawyer, brought a case against Kāinga Ora for refusing to fast-track the project.

At the time, Bishop backed Winton’s stance: “I’m just frustrated because at a time of housing crisis, there’s a private sector development that wants to… accelerate large-scale housing developments, and it looks like there’s a choice.” one rule for the government and another rule for the private sector. And I think that is a mistake.”

Winton chief executive Chris Meehan has been trying to get approval for his 5,000-property Sunfield development in south Auckland. Editing: Newsroom

Max Rashbrooke, from the Institute of Policy and Governance Studies at Wellington’s Te Herenga Waka Victoria University, told Newsroom at the time it would be unethical for Bishop to be involved in Winton’s Sunfield project.

“If Chris Bishop became housing minister, he could ethically have nothing to do with the Winton case,” he said. “The thing about donations to a political party is that they commit the entire party at once, because the entire party is potentially indebted to that donor, or at least in a relationship with them.

“I think it is very difficult for the National Party to make an impartial decision on the Winton project.”

Just courtesy

But in publishing the list, Bishop said it was simply a courtesy letter directing potential applicants to the Ministry of Environment’s online application form.

“Sending this letter does not in any way guarantee that an applicant will choose to submit a project to the new process. If they decided to submit a project, having received my form letter does not mean they would receive any preferential treatment,” Bishop said.

Another major donor on the list was Christchurch’s Carter Group, the property developer behind Christchurch’s The Crossing shopping district.

Its owner, Philip Carter, donated $50,000 to National before the 2023 election. The press He recently crowned Carter the most powerful person in Canterbury for 2024.

Some more tenuous links to companies on the fast-track letter list have also been unearthed, with a finance company associated with the director and half-owner of Kings Quarry donating $50,000 to New Zealand First and $5,000 to Shane Jones.

Fishing

One on the list to watch is Talleys Group. Sir Peter Talley donated $29,950 to New Zealand First in 2019, but it has not yet appeared in election donation disclosures and may not appear at all.

Asked about meeting Fisheries Minister Shane Jones, along with other fishing sector leaders, Sir Peter said: “You can just piss off, cobber, piss off.”

Fishing is another key area where electoral donations, past and present, have drawn criticism.

Jones has overseen a 180-degree turn in the tone of New Zealand’s approach to fisheries management, moving away from restrictions on offshore trawling and generally taking an economic view of the sector.

In the most recent election cycle, Jones received $5,000 from Westfleet Seafoods, a Greymouth-based commercial fishing company 50/50 owned by businessman Craig Boote and Sealord.

Marine and industrial engineering company Aimex, also run and partially owned by Boote, donated $2,000 to Jones’ Northland campaign.

Boote has asked Jones to review the fishing boat camera regime, which he says invaded workers’ privacy.

“It’s going to be very, very difficult for us to recruit young men when they’re going to be kinky 24/7,” he told Newsroom in February.

Jones is currently undertaking a review of the chambers regime. Figures released as part of that review show a significant increase in reports of interactions with protected animals.

He strongly rejected any idea that relationships or donations within the fishing sector made him unfit or compromised his ability to be Fisheries Minister.

“Any suggestion that electoral donations associated with the fishing industry mean we are not following proper government processes is not only wildly inaccurate, but New Zealand First is not going to tolerate a constant flow of bile.”