The “Cabinet Club”

3 News last night had a rather breathless report from Tova O’Brien regarding the existence of the so-called “Cabinet Club”. Frankly, as much as I may champion transparency in New Zealand’s political donations regime, I find it somewhat difficult to get very aggrieved by this “Club” (or “secret racket,” as the Green Party prefers to call it).

Ms O’Brien gleefully stated in her report that:

“The first rule of Cabinet Club is you do not talk about Cabinet Club. Four National MPs 3 News spoke with said they were not sure what it was.”

This was followed by footage of the four MPs looking somewhat bewildered, although later in the segment National MPs (including some of those initial four) chatted quite openly about the fundraising process that was being scrutinised.

I would imagine that the reason the four MPs looked bewildered, is that the Cabinet Club does not actually exist. There is no over-arching organisation or set of rules with that name. What Ms O’Brien was describing is a fairly simple fundraising process that has, to the best of my knowledge, been around in the National party for decades. It’s had various colloquial names, one of which is obviously now the Cabinet Club (it’s a name that obviously wouldn’t have worked in opposition…).

The process works thusly: All electorate MPs (and indeed those list MPs who have based themselves in a particular electorate) are expected to assist that electorate in fundraising. MPs and electorates are free to decide how they fundraise, but one of the template options that is often taken up is where people donate a certain amount of money to attend an occasion or occasions where there’s a guest speaker and Q&A afterwards. Usually the guest speaker will be a visiting Minister or other MP, who will give a speech on their particular policy area of choice.

Nick Smith described it as “pizza politics” – evidently the events are more informal in Nelson than they are in some other electorates. But the process remains the same. It’s about using a speech and ‘meet and greet’ with a visiting Minister or other MP as a drawcard to get party members to stump up some cash above and beyond their usual membership fees, and to try and get sympathetic non-members to donate and/or get involved with the party.

What it isn’t is a coordinated scheme designed to provide cash for influence, despite Ms O’Brien’s insinuations. A donation to attend a speech, followed by a Q&A and some handshaking and polite chitchat can hardly be described as corruption in my book. I would imagine that all parties use their MPs to fundraise in similar ways. Even the Greens.

I would presume that the nickname “Cabinet Club” comes from the simple fact that Ministers are better draw cards than basic MPs. It’s not rocket science – if you want to get people paying to come along and listen to a speech, the big names are always going to attract more attention. After all, if you want people to pay money to attend a charity concert, you’ll sell more tickets with a reformed Led Zeppelin than you will with the local covers band.

Labour certainly seems to be keeping quiet on the issue. Perhaps they remember this proposal from last year’s conference in Christchurch, where $1,250 (plus GST) would buy you:

“An opportunity to meet 1:1 in a short meeting with your choice (subject to availability) of Members of Parliament and senior Party officials (further information regarding this will be sent to you on payment).”

UPDATE:

Here’s a useful comment by former North Shore MP, Dr Wayne Mapp, published at the Standard this morning, which is worth re-publishing in full:

It would help debate here to actually know the facts.

Most electorates, especially those with a sitting National MP, have one of these “clubs”. They continue whether in Opposition or Government and they go back many decades. The title is intended to be aspirational. They are a way of encouraging better off members of the National Party to make a larger donation than the usual membership fee. For that there are typically 3 or 4 dinners per year with visiting MP’s who speak on their portfolio areas. About half the donation goes to fund the triennial campaign, with the other half covering the meals. Yes, these dinners are smaller than public meetings, but they are hardly policy making forums.

I am pretty sure Labour has similiar events to raise money for campaigns. And they are ubiquitious for political parties throughout western democracies. So forget the ludicrous calls of corruption.

As an MP, any member of the public could make an appointment to see me for 30 minutes or so to pretty much discuss whatever they wanted. And I was well known in North Shore to be readily available to see anyone who wanted to see me. A lots of people had all sorts of policy ideas.

So these dinners are not about access to secretly plot policy. Access could be easily got anyway for anyone.

They are about raising money to fund the campaign. Think about it. the local campaign costs $25,000 in the three month period, plus more outside it. There are levies to be paid to head office to run the nationwide campaign. There are newsletters, for members, postage, etc. Even if the local party has 1000 members, and many do not, and each member paid $20, which many do not, there will not be enough money to run the local electorate organisation. The money has to be raised from a whole variety of specific events and from additional donations.

The commenters here seem to want all party donations to be less than $100, for MPs to have no dinners or functions, to see no-one for more than 5 minutes, to never discuss policy with anyone, to have no trusted confidants. In short, for MP’s not to be human beings.

And presumably taxpayers paying virtually the whole of political party activity.

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