Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards.
National is not only winning the race towards the general election finish line, but is also miles ahead in raising money to campaign with. So far, the National Party has picked up $8.2m in big donations since the start of 2021. As RNZ reported this week, that’s seven times more money than the Labour Party.
To alleviate any suspicions of quid pro quo deals, close scrutiny must be applied to these donors, along with any policy and law changes a National government might make that benefit them.
Scrutiny of political donations is always important, of course, regardless of who’s in government. But given the sheer quantum of the donations that are currently going to National, extra vigilance about the influence of this big money is required. Potential conflicts of interest need to be identified and highlighted in order to avoid some of these large donations resulting in private gains for the already-wealthy.
The huge donations going to National
National had a particularly profitable fundraising year in 2022 – taking in $5m in large donations. In 2023, National has already declared $2 million in large donations – four times that of Labour. In this month alone, National has already declared $217,000 in large donations.
National is trumpeting the huge amount of money coming its way. The party’s pollster David Farrar was quoted by RNZ on Wednesday, saying “The amount rolling in is unprecedented”, and “almost exponentially larger than you’ve had in the past”.
Farrar points out that it used to be rare for any party to get anything like donations of $100,000 from a single individual, but now National is regularly getting such amounts. In fact, in June this year building systems and materials supplier, Warren Lewis, gave National $500,000 – the largest donation the party has ever received.
Lewis, who owns FMI Building Innovations, says he’s given the donation with only one condition – a meeting with National leader Christopher Luxon. He says he’s not a National Party member, and has voted for a variety of parties before, including on the left.
Donations from the super-wealthy
New Zealand’s richest man, billionaire Graeme Hart – one of the 200 richest people in the world, worth about $17bn – gave National $250,000 last year. He’s also recently donated to Act ($100,000), and was the biggest financial donor to Wayne Brown’s Auckland mayoralty campaign.
Toy entrepreneur Nick Mowbray also chipped in $250,000 last year. He can afford it – the Mowbray family fortune is about $2.5b.
Former Brierleys chief executive Murray Bolton is worth an estimated $400m. He’s now the CEO of US-based company, Xplor Technologies. He also gave National $250,000 last year. This year he’s given Act $150,000. Bolton hit the news in 2021 because he took MBIE to court over its refusal to allow him to fly his private jet into the country – he claimed it breached the Bill of Rights, and he won.
National’s second-biggest donation in 2023, of $200,000, has come from Buen Holdings, which is owned by Guemsoon Shim and Lian Seng Buen. In previous years, the couple have donated a total of $100,000 through another of their companies, Alpha Laboratories.
This week the couple have been in the news regarding an investigation of allegations of migrant abuse. Newsroom’s Jonathan Milne has outlined how investigations are ongoing by Auckland Council and MBIE Tenancy Services into the couple’s use of their former Auckland home in Shamrock Park to house up to 30 migrant workers.
Jeffrey Douglas, son of the late Sir Graeme Douglas, has given National nearly $104,000 over the last two years. Although he is associated with the family’s Douglas Pharmaceuticals company, Douglas also owns New Zealand’s largest private healthcare and research company. His company has previously been the recipient of government research and development funding.
One transport company has given $100,000 to National. Velocity Freight is owned by Mainstream Group. Recently the company was warned by the Commerce Commission for engaging in “cartel behaviour”. Velocity is a major competitor to Mainfreight, whose owner Bruce Plested has previously given big donations to National, but in recent elections been a major donor to the Māori Party (totalling $360,000).
Maritime businessman James Francis Speedy gave National a $101,000 donation last year. The Aucklander has owned various transport and harbour businesses.
Aviation businessman Hugh Ross Jones has donated $150,000 to National over the last year and a half. Jones made his money in the helicopter business and, according to the NBR, now has “a sizeable residential, commercial and industrial property portfolio”.
Low-profile businessman Gary Lane gave National $100,000 last year. He’s made his money in health and food products – specifically through his company, Antipodean Pharmaceuticals, which is registered in the US.
Business executive Graeme Harrison gave $103,000 to the National Party last year. Harrison is most well-known for his leading role in establishing the ANZCO Foods empire, the country’s fifth-largest exporter. He’s now on the board of the National Party.
Housing industry donors
Former National Cabinet Minister Paula Bennett is the party’s chief fundraiser, and is widely acknowledged as playing a key role in building up the millions in her party’s war chest. Since leaving Parliament Bennett has worked for Bayley’s Real Estate, and that firm has become a major benefactor for the party – giving about $165,000 to National last year.
Rival real estate agency Barfoot and Thompson – the biggest privately owned agency in the country – is owned by the Barfoot family. Patriarch Garth Barfoot is a long-time donor to National. Most recently, he gave $35,000 in 2021
Property developers also feature prominently in National’s donor list. Last month Culum Manson gave $70,000 to the party. His family business, Manson TCLM, is one of the largest private developers in New Zealand.
John and Michael Chow (“The Chow Brothers”) have become big property players, too – including in partnership with John and Max Key in recent years. They have built up a property empire of a billion dollars in assets, and last year alone they built 1,145 properties, valued at $408m. In 2022 their family company Stonewood Group donated $44,000 to National.
National also has a history with property developer the Winton company, partly owned by its CEO Chris Meehan, who has been in the news recently. Through his holding company, Speargrass, Meehan donated $52,000 to National in May 2022. One of Winton’s directors is also former National Cabinet Minister, and now business consultant, Steven Joyce.
Eyebrows were raised when, a few months after Meehan’s donation, National put out a press release supporting Winton in a battle against state housing agency Kāinga Ora. The press release made no mention of National’s financial connection to the property developer it was lobbying in favour of.
The Winton company is now taking legal action against Kāinga Ora, claiming compensation of more than $138 million over alleged anti-competitive behaviour. The state housing agency had rejected a request by Winton to help fast-track one of their projects using special powers under the Urban Development Act.
Racing industry donations
Previously there have been some close connections between racing industry donors and political parties – with large donations made in the past to National and NZ First in particular.
The owners of the famous Cambridge Horse Stud, Brendan and Jocelyn Lindsay, have given National $230,000 over the last two years (and one donation to Act this year of $50,000). The Lindsay family formerly owned the plastic container company Sistema, which they sold in 2016 for $660m.
Another thoroughbred breeder and owner, Sir Peter Vela, has given generously to National – $62,500 last year. Vela owns Pencarrow Stud. He was appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the horse bloodstock industry. The Vela family wealth was estimated at $245m in the 2019 NBR Rich List. The family business has previously given large donations to both Labour and NZ First, as well as holding fundraising functions for Winston Peters at the Pencarrow Stud farm.
Property developer Trevor Farmer has given National $200,000 over the last year and a half. He also donated $100,000 to Act last year. His business partner Mark Wyborn has given National $100,000 over the last couple of years, as well as $50,000 to Act in 2021.
Together Farmer and Wyborn are part owners of a 26,000ha dairy farm near Taupō which has had problems getting enough water for their operations – unsuccessfully applying in 2019 for resource consent to take 71 million litres of water a day out of the Waikato River.
Another giant landowner has given $62,000 to National this month. The Oregon Group is owned by the Tiong Family, who normally reside in Malaysia, but are said to be the second largest private land owners in NZ.
The company is also notable for its agricultural and forestry subsidiary, Ernslaw One, which was fined $225,000 for causing forestry slash problems in Tairāwhiti. The group is currently creating a salmon farm in the Cook Strait, working with the ministries for the Environment and Primary Industries.
Another corporate farmer, Chris Reeves, gave National a $100,000 donation, via his Tawata Farms company in 2021. He has previously given more to Act, with known donations totalling $430,000.
Smaller but interesting donations
Some of the smaller donations to National are interesting too. Andrew Kelly donated $25,000 to the party in June. He was one of the three men who had previously donated to Labour politician Stuart Nash and then received confidential Cabinet information, which cost the MP his job. (Another one of Nash’s donor/confidants, Troy Bowker, has given $35,000 to Act).
Auckland commercial landlord Andrew Krukziener donated $22,000 to National in June. This follows on from him being the biggest backer of Auckland mayoral candidate Viv Beck – Krukziener’s company donated $107,000 to the centre-right politician’s failed campaign before falling in behind the successful campaign of Wayne Brown.
The owner of the Scenic Hotel chain, Lani Hagaman, gave National $50,000 last year. She has an estimated worth of about $210m and is the widow of multi-millionaire Earl Hagaman, who was also a large National donor.
One of the wealthiest men in New Zealand, Craig Heatley, gave $100,000 last year. He’s normally more of an Act Party donor (he also gave them $50,000 this year).
Other traditional Act donors shifting more money to National include the private equity firm Christopher & Banks Ltd, run by rich-lister Christopher Huljich. They have given National $200,000 over the last year and a half. But they’ve also given another $100,000 to Act this year.
One of National’s traditional big donors is merchant banker David Richwhite, who extravagantly donated about $350,000 to the party back in 1996. Since then, however, Richwhite has been relatively absent from the donations records. Last month he’s suddenly returned, donating $50,000 to National.
Why we should care about National’s huge donations
Why are wealthy individuals and businesses giving such large amounts of money to National? The most obvious answer is that the party looks like it’s on course to form the next government.
The history of donations shows the wealthy tend to give to parties that are doing well in the polls. Businesspeople back parties who are likely to be in government. In 2020, the big money went to Labour rather than National, with National only declaring $285,000 of big donations. Therefore, it makes more sense to think of the big money following National’s success, rather than causing it.
Business donors are also inclined to reward parties that have policies they like or feel are “good for the economy”. Like most voters, business donors support parties they feel will govern in their interests. Unlike most voters, however, they make this support known with very large sums of money.
It’s always hard to ascribe exact motivations for donors giving to political parties, but influence over politicians who will likely soon have a lot of power would have to be one of them. In the case of a potential incoming National government, thousands of decisions will soon need to be made, and these will have all sorts of impact on businesses. Donations of this magnitude will certainly ensure National sits up and takes notice of the individuals who have made them.
There is increasing public awareness about the impact of political donations and lobbying on the political process. The ball is therefore now in the court of the donors and the parties to assuage public suspicion that it’s not all about undue influence. It is naïve to assume that big money does not wield big influence in New Zealand. So, as National steams towards power, a lot of light will need to be shone on these relationships, so we can be assured that in 2023 the mega-wealthy haven’t been able to buy a big chunk of our democracy.