New Zealand’s finance minister has warned the country must remain vigilant about potential foreign influence efforts ahead of its election in September, after the country was rocked by allegations of secret donations to opposition politicians by a businessmen with links to the Chinese Communist party.
Grant Robertson told the Financial Times that reforms to laws governing donations were a positive step. However, when asked about the scandal involving the alleged secret donations to the opposition National Party, he said political parties must “stand or fall” on their own conduct.
“Donations are clearly an element of this and we are keen to see how exactly that plays out because donations laws have only recently been changed,” he said.
“No country can say they are going to be immune from that . . . obviously those concerns that I say everybody has around the world, around the potential for interference, still exist and we all have to be vigilant about that.”
New Zealand, which ranked as the least corrupt nation in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, passed laws in December banning all donations by foreigners above NZ$50 ($32).
The country has been criticised in the past for its handling of allegations of foreign interference by organisations and individuals with links to the Chinese Communist party. Analysts have suggested that New Zealand’s participation in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network — which includes the US, the UK, Canada and Australia — should be reconsidered as a result.
In recent weeks, there have been reports of alleged secret donations to the opposition National Party and New Zealand First, the junior coalition partner in the government of Jacinda Ardern.
New Zealand’s Serious Fraud Office has filed criminal charges against four men: Jami-Lee Ross, a former National party MP; Zhang Yikun, a Chinese businessman who is alleged to have close links to the Chinese Communist party; and two other Chinese businessmen called Shijia and Hengjia Zheng, whose occupation is listed as “site manager” in court documents. All of the individuals are New Zealand citizens.
The SFO alleges the men engaged in deception by splitting two donations of NZ$100,000 into sums of less than NZ$15,000 to avoid disclosure as required under electoral law. The four men are due to appear in court on Tuesday and deny the charges.
The three Chinese businessmen released a statement saying they have been caught up in “political mudslinging” between Mr Ross and Simon Bridges, leader of the National party. Mr Ross has said he will fight the charges in interviews on local media.
Mr Zhang’s legal counsel said in a statement to the FT: “Mr Zhang is a proud New Zealander and philanthropist who has supported numerous community groups over many years through fundraising activities and donations.”
Mr Zhang’s representative did not comment on claims that he had maintained close links to the CCP.
Mr Ross, who is now an independent MP, alleges Mr Bridges told him to break up the donation into smaller sums to avoid the party having to declare it publicly. Mr Bridges has categorically denied the allegation, according to court documents outlining the charges.
In a separate case, the SFO said earlier this week it had opened an investigation into donations made to New Zealand First which were not publicly disclosed.
Bryce Edwards, lecturer in politics at Victoria University in Wellington, said both scandals highlighted weaknesses in New Zealand’s donations laws.
“The changes to donations law do not impact on either of these cases as they involve New Zealand citizens or entities,” he said.