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Green Party Co-leader Russel Norman’s speech – Rod Donald Memorial Lecture 2014

Russel Norman MP
Russel Norman MP
russel [dot] norman [at] parliament [dot] govt [dot] nz (Email)

It's been nine years since Rod's tragic death. I'd like to start out by talking about what Rod achieved.

Then I want to talk about the things that I think he might want us to achieve in his absence.

We all owe Rod a huge debt, and the best way to pay that debt is to look at the things he did in his life and ask ourselves: 'If he Rod was still with us today, what causes would he fight for?'

Rod was very concerned about democracy.

Before he became co-leader of the Green Party he was one of the leaders of the Electoral Reform Coalition.

They fought to get rid of the First Past the Post (FPP) electoral system.

They built nation-wide support for changing the way we elect our governments. In 1993 there was a referendum about whether to keep FPP or switch to Mixed Member Proportion (MMP).

And there was a huge PR campaign warning people not to vote for MMP.

By the late 1980s the general public was very frustrated with FPP.

But some sectors of the business community loved it, because even though Labour often won the majority of the popular vote, National won the majority of the seats in Parliament, so they were the government for most of the 20th century.

And then, in the 80s, big business was able to capture key members of the Labour caucus and get them to implement their agenda even more quickly than National would have.

There were third parties and many people voted for them, but the system was stacked against them.

It was almost impossible for third parties to get representation.

In 1981 social credit won over 20 percent of the vote but they only got two seats in Parliament.

So sectors of the business community desperately wanted to keep FPP, this electoral system that was horribly broken, because it was broken in their favour.

They had incredible resources. Huge amounts of money. They had offices. They had full time staff. They were fronted by the chairman of Telecom, Peter Shirtcliffe. They had a massive advertising budget.

In the week before the election, they outspent not only all of the other political parties on television advertising, but every other company in New Zealand.

What did Rod Donald have to fight all of that?

Well, he had a hallway.

Rod set up an office in his hallway, in his house.

He worked with other campaigners like Dianne Yates, people in the union movement like Colin Clark.

He worked with community organisations. He wrote letters and editorials and went to debates and mobilised activists and community groups.

All from his hallway.

They faced fierce opposition.

They were accused of being a front for communists.

Their opponents played ads on TV that showed two cute little babies while a voiceover said that advocates for MMP were trying to destroy those babies lives.

But Rod kept fighting.

From his hallway.

He made the arguments.

He won the debates.

And MMP won the referendum.

He beat some of the most powerful, ruthless people in the country, and he changed our country for the better.

Unfortunately corruption in politics is a bit like rust. It never sleeps.

There are always people out there looking for loopholes; looking for ways to exploit the system.

So it's not enough just to acknowledge Rod's victory and congratulate ourselves that the good guys won, because the people he beat certainly didn't.

Those groups, sometimes even the exact same individuals, are still trying to buy influence and policy and political power.

Our democracy is still broken - deliberately broken - in ways that privilege the wealthy and the powerful.

Today I want to talk about three key elements of our democracy, how they're broken and how we can fix them. I want to talk about votes, information and money.

Firstly, votes. We have MMP now.

It means we don't have elections where parties lose the majority vote, but still win the election.

It means we have coalition governments.

It means we have more diversity.

We have more women MPs, more Maori MPs. More Pacific Island MPs.

MMP is fantastic. Except when it isn't.

When MMP was set up we adopted the recommendations of the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System.

We basically just copied the West German model of MMP because that was the one they liked the best.

The problem with that is that West Germany is a lot larger than New Zealand, and Germany's history is slightly different to ours.

It's a federal country.

It has distinct regions, and it has regional political parties that are popular locally, but not nationally.

It also had a history of extremist political parties.

So the West German model had a threshold, a certain percentage of votes that you had to get, to get into Parliament.

The Royal Commission recommended 4 percent.

The two big parties here, National and Labour, made it a bit higher.

They made it 5 percent to make it harder for their competitors to get elected.

The West German model had this electorate loophole, where if you didn't make the threshold but you won an electorate seat in, say, Bavaria, you got to bring in a proportionate number of MPs with you.

The Royal Commission didn't say why New Zealand needed to copy this aspect of MMP.

They basically just cut and pasted it in.

It means we now have these so-called strategic seats and strategic voting that we hear all about each election, in the remote, isolated regions of Ohariu and Epsom.

There are a few problems with this.

One is that you get unequal results.

In our most recent election almost a hundred thousand people voted for the Conservative Party.

They didn't reach the threshold so they're not in Parliament.

About 5000 people voted for United Future- about a twentieth of the Conservative vote.

Peter Dunne won his electorate seat so he's in Parliament. He's in government.

He gets funded as if he's a party leader.

But at least he's popular in his electorate.

The ACT Party wouldn't even win their seat if John Key didn't tell the people of Epsom to give their electorate votes to a candidate for another party.

ACT gets less than three percent of the party vote in Epsom.

People in that electorate aren't voting for ACT, they're voting for National, but they're doing so via a loophole that lets them give National an extra MP in Parliament.

How does the loophole work?

It's pretty simple.

The way MMP is supposed to work is that the number of MPs you get is dependent on the party vote.

So National got 47 percent of the vote in the recent election.

In theory they should get 47 percent of the seats, which works out to be 56 out of a 120.

Those MPs come in off the list, but if an MP wins an electorate seat then they go into Parliament and a list MP drops off.

The number of MPs stays the same, and at 47 percent it's not enough to form a government.

Unless, like National does with ACT, you have a candidate from a fake party and you gift an electorate seats like Epsom and Ohariu to them.

Then they get a seat in Parliament, and National doesn't lose a list MP. It's also an insurance policy.

If these fake parties do get more than about 1.4 percent of the vote then they'll get a second MP which they wouldn't get if they didn't have an electorate MP.

And because these parties owe their entire existence to National, their obedience is guaranteed.

They have to do as they're told and they vote whichever way National wants.

So that's a great little loophole for National.

And it gets better, or should I say worse.

Because the Conservative Party didn't meet the 5 percent threshold their seats got redistributed, so National, ACT and United Future have 62 seats in Parliament.

They have a majority and they can pass laws even though they won less than 48 percent of the party vote.

It's not so great for the voters.

Colin Craig and I didn't have the warmest relationship.

But almost 100,000 people voted for the guy and his party, and their votes should have counted.

We want to encourage people to vote and participate in the democratic process, and they're not going to do that if their vote just gets thrown away if it doesn't meet some arbitrary benchmark.

The other thing that's troubling about the threshold and the electorate loophole is that it distorts the way people vote.

The beauty of MMP is that you're supposed to vote for the party that you want and have your vote count.

But the threshold creates the possibility that your vote won't count, that it'll be wasted, and that punishes smaller parties.

It also confuses the hell out of people.

All through the election campaign we all heard about strategic voting and how important it is.

People kept coming up to me and asking me how they could vote strategically.

They were confused by all this talk of strategic voting.

They thought they didn't understand MMP.

But when I talked to them I generally found that they don't live in a strategic electorate, because most people don't, so they can't vote strategically, and they actually did understand MMP but all this talk about strategic voting had confused them.

During the 2011 election there was a referendum on MMP.

The country voted to keep it.

After that there was a review of the system.

There were thousands of submissions, and most of them said the same thing.

Lower the threshold.

Get rid of the electorate loophole.

That's what the Electoral Commission recommended to the Justice Minister.

Unfortunately the Justice Minister at the time was one Judith Collins, and she dumped those recommendations in the bin.

Her argument was that the parties in parliament couldn't reach consensus

The parties that couldn't reach consensus with the rest of us were National, United Future and ACT.

These are serious flaws in our electoral system.

They need to be fixed, and they can't be allowed to stay broken just because the people who benefit from the loopholes want to keep them open.

The next thing I want to talk about is information.

One of the things that has stayed the same under MMP is that we still have a largely adversarial system.

You have the government and the opposition.

This system has its drawbacks.

When you see Parliament on the TV news and it looks like a bunch of idiots shouting abuse and nonsense at each other, well, that's one of the drawbacks.

But the big advantage of the adversarial system is that it's a great way to hold the government to account.

To catch them out when they break their promises, or break the law.

The state is very powerful.

We give it about $60 billion a year in taxes to spend.

It has all this private information about us.

It has great power over our lives.

But most people don't have time to keep an eye on it and make sure the money is being spent wisely or that its power isn't being abused.

They're too busy getting on with their lives.

That's the beauty of the adversarial system.

That monitoring is outsourced to the political parties that aren't in government.

And we have a strong incentive to catch them when they're doing something unethical or illegal, and tell the rest of the country about it.

This system is breaking down in a number of ways.

One of them is that modern politics is increasingly driven by polling and market research.

What that means is that when we catch a government Minister breaking the law, they don't resign.

They don't call their lawyer.

They call their pollster, David Farrar.

They ask him if the scandal is resonating with voters.

Is it hurting them among key demographics? If it is, then they do something.

The Prime Minister might call for an inquiry, or for a Minister to step down for a little while. But if it isn't, if the polls look good - nothing happens.

The other thing that's breaking down is our ability to find out what the government is doing.

The way we find out what all these very powerful people who run our country are up to is through the Official Information Act (the OIA).

We've all heard a lot about the OIA recently

It was introduced in 1982 by the Muldoon government.

The principle is very noble and very simple.

It's that we should have open government.

The state should tell us what it's doing, and why, unless there's a very good reason not to.

After all, it's our information.

We pay for it. We own it. It's ours.

For a long time we did have open government.

Now, not so much.

David Fisher, the investigative editor at the New Zealand Herald recently gave a speech about the OIA.

He talked about the early days of his career.

When he wanted to find something out he'd call a government department and ask them.

They'd transfer him to the right person.

That person would tell him what he wanted to know.

That is now unthinkable.

Fisher's view is that the openness and transparency of the public service began to decline rapidly in 2005, in the last term of the Clark government, and that under the Key government paranoia and secrecy are pandemic.

The release of almost all information is controlled by Ministerial offices. Almost every request is delayed and redacted or denied.

OIAs are supposed to be processed within twenty working days, maximum.

The law actually says that information should be provided as quickly as possible.

Twenty days is the limit.

The reality is that if you're a journalist or an opposition MP it's not unusual for a request to take years - literally years - to grind its way through the system.

On the other hand if releasing that information is in the Government's interest - if they're collaborating with a friendly journalist or a blogger to attack the government's enemies - information can be released within minutes.

That was one of the elements of the Dirty Politics scandal.

Nicky Hager alleged that back in 2011, staff in John Key's office told a blogger to request an OIA to smear Labour leader Phil Goff.

At the time Key said that this was wrong.

Hager was a crazy conspiracy theorist.

He denied that his office was involved in any of this.

The Green Party asked the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security to look into what happened, and yesterday she released her report.

It showed that not only was Hager right, but that things were far worse than he or any of us thought.

It showed that the Director of Security Intelligence Service (SIS) created a politically biased briefing paper that was "incomplete, inaccurate and misleading".

In the past, the SIS always reported to the Prime Minister, but the Gwyn report revealed that Key has ditched that convention and the intelligence agencies now report to National Party operatives working in John Key's office.

So the SIS director passed on this false information about Phil Goff to a guy named Phil de Joux, Key's Deputy Chief of Staff, and de Joux passed it to Jason Ede, Key's taxpayer-funded dirty tricks operative, and Ede called Cameron Slater and told him to ask for these documents, which were then declassified and given to him in a week, even though other media who had already asked for the exact same information were refused it on the grounds that it was classified.

Most OIA requests don't get approved within minutes, or days, or even weeks.

Most get delayed for as long as possible and then dumped, usually after the end of the day on a Friday, often before a long weekend, along with thousands of other documents.

Most government departments like to dump their information in the form of image files so you can't search them; someone has to manually trawl through all of this data, looking for what's been intentionally concealed.

So that's not really true to the principles of open government and transparency.

If you work in politics or the media, this abuse of the OIA is so common-place, so routine, that when you take a step back and think about what's going on: that hundreds of civil servants are being paid to break the law and conceal the government's activities from the public.

It takes your breath away. It's crazy. It's obscene. It's wrong.

But it's also easy to fix.

Think about the way the public service treats money.

Money is very serious.

The rules around money are very tight.

If you're a Ministerial staffer or the head of a department you can't just spend twice your budget, or blow it all at the casino.

If you break the law you get in trouble. You lose your job. And there are auditors who make sure that the rules are being followed. They audit the departments. They ask questions if something doesn't look right. They can call in the police if they think the law is being broken.

We need the same systems in place around information. We need audits to make sure that departments are complying with information requests. And if a government department is responding to requests from lobbyists within 24 hours and delaying requests from opposition MPs and journalists for years, then that department head needs to go. The government exists for the people, not the politicians, and it cannot refuse to tell the people what it's doing just because the politicians don't want them to know.

We also need to empower academics and non-government organisations to speak out when they disagree with government policy. When scientists in New Zealand speak out against tobacco, or junk food they get smeared by the government's attack dogs. The book, Dirty Politics, found that some of those smears were co-ordinated by Katherine Rich, a lobbyist and former National MP who this government appointed to the Health Promotion Authority where she's supposed to be promoting health and well-being.

Separately, when the Problem Gambling Foundation - a world leading organisation dedicated to reducing the harm of gambling - spoke out against National's dirty deal with Sky City to build a convention centre in exchange for rewriting the gambling laws, the foundation lost their funding overnight. Now they're faced with closing all their offices, losing 63 of their staff.

Under this government whenever an NGO wins a government contract they're generally forced to sign a gag-clause, preventing them from speaking out about their work or the sector they're in. A recent study by Victoria University revealed that the number of non-government organisations silenced by gag-clauses has doubled under National.

When information is censored and experts are silenced we get bad policy and bad government. Democracy needs a contest of ideas. It needs debate. What we have now is an ominous silence.

Finally, let's talk about money, because money certainly talks in politics.

In 2014, there were two big scandals about political donations and National Cabinet Ministers.

One involved a man named Donghua Liu, who was director of a company that donated $22,000 to the National Party.

About a year after he made that donation, Donghua Liu was charged with assault.

He called Maurice Williamson, a National MP, and Maurice Williamson rang the police to question them about the investigation.

Then we had the Oravida scandal in which Judith Collins flew to China as a Minister, paid for by the taxpayer, and then went around promoting a company that donated $30,000 to National and which employed her husband as director.

These were big scandals.

Maurice Williamson resigned, Judith Collins was put on a final warning, and about four scandals later she was finally sacked as a Minister.

But what's important to understand is that both of these incidents were an anomaly. The reason we know about these donations and the reason these Ministers resigned is because the donations were public.

That's very unusual.

The donations system is designed to grant anonymity and protect politicians and their donors from publicity, and prevent scandals like the ones that happened this year.

Since 2011 the Electoral Commission has required political parties to disclose the total amount of some of their donations.

There are loopholes, as usual, but if you count up the donations we have a rough idea of how much money is entering the political system.

In the last four years people and companies have donated at least $20m to political parties.

That's the absolute minimum.

We don't have all the numbers for 2014 yet.

The final number will probably be over $25m.

We know about the large donations for 2014 that have already been declared.

Kim Dotcom gave the Internet Mana Party over $3m.

The Conservative Party got about $3m in large donations.

But those amounts are pretty small when you look at the very large sums of money going into political parties that are undisclosed.

An undisclosed donation is when a political party knows who gave them some money, but the donation is less than $15,000 so they don't have to declare the identity of the donor.

So you can give $15,000 a year for three years, a total of $45,000, and the party doesn't have to reveal your identity.

We don't have the numbers for 2014 yet, but in the three years leading up to it, almost 60 percent of the donations - over $6.5m - were undisclosed.

The majority of it went to parties that are in government - ACT, The Maori Party and United Future.

In just three years leading up to 2014 the National Party took in over $3m in undisclosed donations.

Almost 80 percent of the donations National received are undisclosed.

They know who's paying them.

We don't.

That's a big problem.

Because we do know that Ministers help out people and companies who give them money.

We've seen it happen with Maurice Williamson and Judith Collins.

It might be a big coincidence that National's Ministers have been caught out helping the relatively few companies that made public donations and they're really scrupulous about not helping companies that make secret donations.

But I doubt it.

When the government gives someone taxpayer money, or changes the law to help them out, or gives them a knighthood, or a passport, we need to know if it's because that person or company genuinely deserves that help, or if there was a deal.

Some people are going to ask: what about the Green Party?

You guys take donations, and you take donations from undisclosed donors.

Doesn't that make you hypocrites?

The frustrating reality is that National has set these rules and we have to play by them.

The other reality is that we're an opposition party.

In Government it's one of the first things we need to fix.

And fixing this is easy.

It's not going to cost any political capital.

The public isn't going to be angry if we increase the transparency around political donations.

The government just needs to change the law and lower the declaration threshold.

It's currently set at $15,000 and the argument is that ordinary New Zealanders should be able to support whatever political party they want without their identity being made public.

But ordinary New Zealanders don't have $15,000 to give to a political party.

I believe that threshold should be at $1,000.

That's still more money than most people can afford to give.

The three things I've just talked about - voting, transparency and money - go to the heart of our democracy.

And what's perverse is that it has never been easier or cheaper for the government to be transparent.

Since the OIA was introduced 32 years ago we've had a digital revolution. Everything can be posted online.

Things are supposed to be getting better. Instead they're getting worse.

Democracy is a bit like electricity or running water.

As a lot of people in Christchurch found out, you don't really notice how vital those things are until you don't have them anymore.

And you don't really have democracy anymore at the regional level. Instead of an elected council you have commissioners hand-picked by the government.

But the erosion of democracy isn't always that obvious.

It's gradual.

It happens when we're not looking.

It's a bit like when you're out walking in the late afternoon and your mind wanders, and then you realise the sun's gone down and you're walking in the dark.

Right now we have this sunny, friendly happy blur of John Key, cracking jokes, posing with the All Blacks, constantly reassuring us that he's comfortable and relaxed.

But behind him the shadows are lengthening.

And in those shadows we can still dimly make out businesses buying access to Ministers, corporations buying laws and silencing their critics, intelligence agencies smearing their political opponents, political operatives leaking information about their enemies or covering it up for their friends.

Rod Donald showed us that their victory is not inevitable.

These components of our democracy that are broken by design can be fixed.

We do have to fight for democracy, but if we fight we can win.

We don't have to be super-rich to defy the super-rich.

We don't have to be individually powerful to overcome the powerful.

But we do have to work together.

We do need to speak out against what's happening in our country, in the shadows, behind the dazzling blur.

And other than that, all you need is a hallway.

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