Kris Faafoi says piecemeal reform of electoral law must give way for more meaningful change – but it is all too easy to be sceptical about the Government’s prospects of success

Analysis: As if responsibility for New Zealand’s Covid-hit immigration system was not enough, one of Kris Faafoi’s other hats – that of Justice Minister – has left him in charge of kick-starting the significant process of electoral reform.

After some were taken aback by the Government’s unheralded intentions to review the country’s electoral finance laws, along with potential changes to MMP and the length of the parliamentary term, Faafoi has now put some meat on the bones of that plan, albeit with plenty still to be filled in. 

An independent panel will be appointed to review the potential options, consult with the public and report back by late 2023, setting the stage for any reforms to be passed before the 2026 election (but possibly not coming into effect until 2029).

In the meantime, Faafoi promised some “targeted changes” ahead of the next election in 2023 (although not yet a fix for the issue of overseas New Zealanders who could lose voting rights due to their inability to win the MIQ lottery).

Work to streamline the process for voters to move between the Māori and general rolls – an option currently available to Māori only every five to six years, as it is tied to the Census – seems like a sensible move, albeit one still likely to attract some angst from a vocal minority.

But there was precious little information available on the other near-term commitment, to improve the transparency of political donations.

Faafoi was either unwilling or unable to say what shape those reforms could take, saying the Government was “not in a position to make any public statements about that”.

Scandals shake public confidence

It is clear that the string of political donation scandals has shaken confidence in the system, although one could argue the problem is less electoral financing law and more the willingness of donors and parties to fall foul of it.

The easiest area for short-term change could be around the monetary thresholds which separate anonymous donations from those which must be disclosed to the public.

In particular, the gap between the $15,000 threshold for disclosure of party donations and the lower $1500 figure for individual candidates has long been identified as an easy way for aspiring or incumbent MPs to (legally) launder money through electorate committees or party headquarters.

Likewise, the practice of “declaring” the identity of artists who donate works to be sold at party fundraisers, but not the people who pay potentially overinflated prices for them, may fall within the law as it stands but seems contrary to the spirit of donation transparency.

But it is not entirely clear when, if at all, more significant loopholes in the system will be addressed, such as the legality of donations from New Zealand-domiciled, but foreign-owned, companies – an issue which was not dealt with by the Government’s overhyped “ban” on overseas donations in 2019.

Concerns around foreign interference loom large in many of the discussions about political donations, and is why there are some surprising advocates (albeit in private) for perhaps the most sweeping solution – state funding of political parties.

Winning public backing, and cross-party support, for any major changes is likely to be a formidable hurdle for the Government.

But such a move would raise different questions about political elites growing detached from the public they serve, and is a tough sell to say the least for a public already cynical about politicians feathering their own nests. 

That may explain why Faafoi was cagey about the prospect of officials doing any work to estimate the costs of such a system: “That’s why I think it’s important to get the public opinion about whether that’s a flier or not – if it’s not then I don’t think it will be proceeded.”

Winning public backing, and cross-party support, for any major changes is likely to be a formidable hurdle for the Government.

The push for a four-year term will also attract cries of self-interest, voters having already twice (in 1967 and 1990) voted against any extension, while dropping the five percent threshold and scrapping the “coat-tail” loophole for electorate MPs has been strongly opposed by National and ACT in the past.

Changes to so-called “reserved provisions” in the Electoral Act – including the length of Parliament’s term, the voting age – must pass a (rightly) high bar, either a 75 percent supermajority in Parliament or a majority at a public referendum.

Refining the five percent threshold and implementing many of the recommendations from the Electoral Commission’s 2012 review of MMP (most of which the National government of the time did not adopt) would not need to meet such a test, but Faafoi has already indicated the Government is keen for broad, non-partisan support for any changes – even if the concept of consensus-based reform is debatable to say the least.

In all, it is easy to be sceptical about this Government having any more success than others in moving beyond piecemeal change to a more substantial overhaul.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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