The problem with corporate money in electorate campaigns

Written By: - Date published: 10:44 am, February 24th, 2024 - 34 comments
Categories: election 2023, election funding, elections, labour, nz first - Tags:

The 2023 candidate and third party electoral returns have now been released. There is a lot to analyse but already there is one entry that is raising eyebrows.

In West Coast Tasman an independent candidate, Patrick Phelps, received $32,600 from Bathurst Resources Ltd to run for the seat. There is nothing illegal about this. Bathurst is under the Electoral Act not considered to be an Overseas Person, even though it is effectively owned by Australian and Singaporean interests.

Phelps is a miner and ran a campaign criticising the Government for its mining policies on the West Coast. He picked up 5,903 candidate votes, which is pretty significant given that Labour’s Damian O’Connor lost to National’s Maureen Pugh by 1,017 votes.

And his campaign clearly fed into the Nanny State Labour branding and the sense that things were grim.

Jonathan Milne at Newsroom has the details. From the article:

It was the 1908 miners’ strike in Blackball on the West Coast that led to the birth of the Labour Party.

So there was a rich vein of irony last year when Stockton mine management stopped work, called a meeting and told all its 310 workers to vote for its own man instead.

“That certainly pisses me off, given the advocacy that I have undertaken for the mining industry on the Coast, through all my time in Parliament,” says Labour’s Damien O’Connor.

The veteran MP is smarting at a revelation in new disclosures published by the Electoral Commission: ASX-listed mining firm Bathurst Resources donated $32,600 to 29-year-old independent Patrick Phelps to fully fund his campaign for more mining on the West Coast. 

Candidate spending limits were $32,600 at last year’s election. So Bathurst, unhappy with a Labour policy banning more mining of conservation land, funded Phelps’ entire campaign – every last dollar. It gave him a far bigger war chest than the more established candidates.

“Look, it was a very credible result for him. And I acknowledge that,” O’Connor tells Newsroom. “Clearly, across the wider West Coast region, people saw our policy as a blockage to further any further mining development.

“There are many international companies and organisations wanting to influence New Zealand elections for their own purposes – the smoking industry, the investment and real estate industry as we’re starting to see. And there’ll be many more.

“I think what people have to do is follow the money, ask the question: why such investments would be made? And for the most part, no business makes an investment without some realistic expectation of a return.”

Phelps works for an industry funded West Coast Trust whose role is to “promote, encourage, and support the people who work in the extractive industries on the West Coast”. The Chair of the Trust is Richard Tacon who is the Chief Executive of Bathurst Resources.

The experience raises the fear that in seats sensitive to single issues well funded corporate candidates could unseat candidates whose parties take policy positions opposed to the corporate’s interests.

Internationally it is not a new phenomenon. For instance the Clive Palmer United Australia Party has acted as a well resourced spoiler for some time. Its parties are very similar to NZ First’s, a collection of pro extraction and extreme counter culture policies the combination of which is quite jarring.

But the experience suggests that electoral campaign reform is required.

Otherwise well funded single policy candidates in strategic electorates could play havoc with senior politicians career prospects.

34 comments on “The problem with corporate money in electorate campaigns ”

  1. UncookedSelachimorpha 1

    Another reason we should have a blanket ban on all political donations. Fixed party membership fees only. Why should anyone be able to purchase political influence?

    Unfortunately neither Labour nor National are keen to ban them.

    • Ad 1.1

      Stupid idea.

      Try running a campaign.

      • UncookedSelachimorpha 1.1.1

        "Stupid idea."


        I suppose that if you were accustomed to and invested in the current corrupt approach, any other approach might seem impossible.

        • gsays

          "accustomed to and invested "

          I think that is it in a nutshell. Part of the TINA brigade.

          " Fixed party membership fees only."

          I agree, although, parties appealing to members may narrow the broadness of their church.

    • Bearded Git 1.2

      What pisses me off is that Phelps purposely hid who was funding him during the election campaign, leaving the public to find this out months after the election.

      How many other people did this?

  2. Macro 2

    Very reminiscent of the state of US political affair right now with the continual interference with any progressive policy and definitive action on addressing climate degradation. Senator Joe Manchin springs to mind.

    The 75-year-old represents a state dominated by coal mining interests and has extensive fossil fuel investments of his own, a fact often highlighted by conservation groups.

    Just what we do not want here.

  3. Cricklewood 3

    At an electorate level i'm not bothered by this at all. No doubt there are a handful of electorates around the country that do have significant issues with central govt policy or the direction of travel of govt on the whole.

    That funding has allowed a candidate to put these views forward in a public and sustained way in seeking election to parliament is a good thing. It actually strengthens local democracy at end of the day he was unsuccessful as only a small portion of the electorate prescribed to the views he expoused.

    That a local candidate might impact a senior politicians career prospects isnt something to worried about at all.

    • Drowsy M. Kram 3.1

      … i'm not bothered by this at all.

      … isnt something to worried about at all.

      Me worry!

      Neuman's famous motto is the intellectually incurious "What, me worry?" This was changed for one issue to "Yes, me worry!" after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

    • Ghostwhowalks 3.2

      The voters were completely unaware that Bathurst had given this so called 'independent' person massive campaign funding ($32k) – up to the limit seat candidates could spend !

      His spending exceeded nationals candidate ($24K) and Labours ($18K) and was double that of the other minor party candidates – combined ($14K)

      This is what we should be worried about , massive dark money funding of candidates , not revealed until 4 months after voting.

      • Incognito 3.2.1

        Deadline for filing of Return of Electorate Candidate Donations, Expenses and Loans for the 2023 General Election was 14 February 2024.

      • Cricklewood 3.2.2

        Yet all that funding he didnt get close to winning… the article linked in the op does note he did reveal he was supported by Bathurst and he has called himself a stooge for the mining industry previously.

        I'll bet damn near everybody who voted for him new damn well what they were voting for. Im fine with that.

        • Matiri

          I'm in the West Coast Tasman electorate and Phelps ran quite a seductive campaign – vote for me and you'll get three MPs in parliament. I didn't vote for him but was unaware of the Bathurst money link although I knew he was a mining advocate.

        • Ghostwhowalks

          'Supported' ?

          Bathurst was his ONLY donor- at the max any candidate could spent.

          he was Bathurst poodle

          he wasnt even mining adjacent …– he’s a former RNZ journalist.", and grew up in Gisborne.
          Now he wears plaid to seem to be a coaster

          last RNZ story was 2015

          His mission was never too win, but to split the vote so that Ms Pugh would

      • Anne 3.2.3


        There is a good chance that a significant proportion of those 5000 odd votes would not have gone Phelps way if the voters had been aware of what essentially was a scam. It may not have been illegal but it was dirty politics at its worst.

        Just imagine if a left wing group had done it to prevent a National candidate from winning. The screams from all quarters including the MSM would have been deafening. I doubt there will be much more than a mild tut-tut from the media over this gerrymandering of an electorate candidate vote.

        • Belladonna

          But what's the chance they would have gone O'Connor's way?

          If people are that upset with the record of the Labour government on mining – which appeared to be Phelps' sole platform – then they're not likely to be voting for the Labour candidate.

          As it was, O'Connor did significantly better, personally, than the Labour party vote.

          It could be argued that most of those votes would otherwise have gone to Pugh (National) And the Phelps campaign nearly allowed O'Connor to squeak through and win.

          NB: that’s not what ‘gerrymander’ means.

          • Anne

            I have witnessed political gerrymandering first hand and I know what it looks like, smells like and is like. I suspect you have not personally witnessed such an event, so how about giving away this petty point scoring habit of yours.

    • UncookedSelachimorpha 3.3

      "That funding has allowed a candidate to put these views forward in a public and sustained way"

      Yep, and other equal or better views were not put forward in the same way, as they didn't have a rich donor who stood to gain, backing them.

      The death of democracy and the birth of autocracy in action.

  4. Robert Guyton 4

    "“I’m worried about climate change, I’m worried about biodiversity loss, but I just don’t see that as being at odds with having a healthy mining sector. And other people are free to disagree with me on that."

    You silly worry-worts!

  5. Ghostwhowalks 5

    $32k from one donor for a single candidate.

    Surely that was made public at the time it was donated [30/08/23]

    or is a loophole for independent candidates , and only applies to 'partys'

  6. Mike the Lefty 6

    That kind of explains why Damien O'Connor was uncharacteristically abrupt with reporters wanting to interview him after the final results came out. He was still smarting, understandably.

    Unfortunately spoilers are an unwelcome reality in politics. They stand for nothing, just stand against something (or everything as we witnessed here in the last election). They did the UK Labour Party much harm in the last election there.

    But when they get big money to do this it is very concerning. Given the political climate at the moment dominated by the NACTZ who essentially bought the last election with lies funded by big money, we shouldn't expect any reform on this point.

  7. AB 7

    Useful (to the corporate lobbyists) idiots like Phelps will pop up as long as climate action is seen as threatening livelihoods, not protecting them.

    The irony is that if there was a 'natural' reason for mining to stop (cost of extraction too high, seam running out) the company would walk away from the local community without a backward glance. Local people need to somehow be reassured that action on the climate will not proceed with the same ruthless brutality they have come to expect from markets.

    • Drowsy M. Kram 7.1

      Local people need to somehow be reassured that action on the climate will not proceed with the same ruthless brutality they have come to expect from markets.

      yes Does anyone know if our coalition govt's public service cuts will include MBIE's "Just Transitions" unit? If so, then I hope the cuts are just transitions.

      Finance Minister Nicola Willis tight-lipped on how many public service jobs will be cut [15 Feb 2024]
      Prime Minister Christopher Luxon warned on AM last year the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) could "absolutely" lose 30 percent of staff under his Government.

      Government’s blunt approach to public service cuts laid bare in last Productivity Commission report [20 Feb 2024]
      "This Government appears blind to the impact on people and the economy in its zealous drive to find money to fund tax cuts for higher income earners and landlords.

      "Coupled this with its attack on workers by scrapping Fair Pay Agreements, re-introducing 90 day trials, reducing the real minimum wage, and cutting the real value of benefits, and it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that this Government is mean and out of touch.

      "It really has no vision as to how to build, a strong, resilient economy."

      Luxon and Willis do, however, know how to build strong, prosperous landLords.

    • Cricklewood 7.2

      Pretty sure the locals know the likes of Bathurst will walk away at some point.

      The problem, is a viable alternative that provides well paying employment to support a move away from coal extraction hasn't been put forward by anyone.

  8. Belladonna 8

    Except that, under MMP, electorate votes don't control the government. It's the party vote that counts.

    If O'Connor had won the seat for Labour, all that would have happened is that one of the current List MPs would not have gained a seat.

    Unless you have strong evidence that the party vote for Phelps also impacted on the Labour electorate vote in West Coast-Tasman (which AFAICS, doesn't seem to be the case) – then the electorate outcome didn't affect the overall outcome of the 2023 election (apart, of course, for O'Connor and Pugh)

    The party vote for Labour in the electorate in 2011 & 2014 was much the same as 2023.

    Had the mining interests been funding Pugh – then there could indeed be something to see here.

  9. Ad 9

    Fair enough point on one electorate.

    But MS you know getting $10k out of a wine auction isn't hard with a good candidate.

    Raising $30 in an evening takes a bit of focus but still not hard at $150 a plate, a corkage-only winelist, and a decent-sized restaurant.

    Go back a little to 2002 and we were going to art auctions with donated artworks for Helen Clark racking over $100k a night.

    Or in the good old days when Bob Harvey was the bundler supreme, hoovering 20+20+20 out of blind trusts that led to leading professionals across firms and surgeries and partnerships most of our haute-bourgeoisie.

    What is really stark to me here in Wanaka compared to Auckland is how easy the money is, how tight the networks, how liberal people are outside the property developer families. And everyone is cashed up and over 65.

    Can you really see Chippie's team exciting major artists to donate to make an event with putting a black tie on for? Hell I can't even see his team form attractive policy.

    I can however easily imagine husband and wife going to a Parker event, ready for a nights' limit of $1,499 each, or the $4,999 limit. And after that, there would be a team following them up if a family trust would be interested in the $49.440 limit.

    The Greens made their cash faster than a stripper.

    Chippie's team only need to ask themselves why. Or he could just look in the mirror and ask why indeed everyone closed their wallets on him.

    Worry less about the “conspiracy”, and worry more about how to get the cash to win.

  10. Scud 10

    Sorry Folks, but this nothing new on the Coast!

    My Great Grandfather & later Great Uncle Len who were running our Family Coal mine in the Grey Valley (Blackball). We heavily supported the Labour Party & the local candidates (incl Tasman we also had a couple of Co-op Farms) at all levels of Government in return for favours like the State Advances etc so much so that the National Party ended up withdrawing our mining licence in the 60's!

    We weren't happy chappies & never been as we were on the verge of exploiting a massive coal that kept us & the extended family employed for 40+ yrs base on the known data & information I have gathered for that time.

    Plus on top of this, we also heavily supported the Grey Valley Argus Newspaper to a point we were the head of the Board of Directors for Argus Newspaper until we had the horrible decision to close the paper in 65 or 66 as industry started to wind down & or slowly modernise due workers/ families, unions, the various CO-OP's like us that supported Argus & others.

    Yes we're were Wesleyan Socialists, but were also hard head pragmatic capitalist's (probably the Yorkshireman coming out of Great Grandfather LoL)

    • Ad 10.1

      Great coaster story!

      • Scud 10.1.1


        Nothing hasn't changed much on the Coast LoL

        Swap out our Family for the Brichfields & this Muppet, is like Red to Blue LoL

      • Scud 10.1.2

        Found some interesting stuff in the National Archives back in Apr last when I was in Wellington for the day on the family mine, but I need to get into the NZ Parliamentary Archives to back up some of my other assumptions & confirm what I have read in the National Archives.

        before start digging elsewhere.

        Like the Buller Court records IRT Mines accidents & miner's compensation (There's an Interesting story as is the below involving the Mines Dept which both the Union & Mclagan didn't like lol)

        Mines Dept Records from 1925 onwards

        NZ Miner's Union Archives which is held by Etu nowadays

        And the last which has an issue for everyone in the family the since the day we got booted from the NZCP is their Archives

        The National Party didn't actually like the family as did the NZCP did back in 31 & even now many travellers from the far left still hate us LoL. Who believe in the Bloody Stupid Chekists aka Mclagan, Locke's & Co etc.

        But they only have themselves to blame for what happened in the 31 Strike as The Family & those who support us all said the strike would failed Incl Paddy Webb along with Bob Semple. Thence why we all resigned from the Miner's Union on protest when they voted in favour to strike & never rejoined the miner's union again.

  11. georgecom 11

    I think it's reasonable to know where funding is coming from for organisations involved in elections, both political parties and lobby groups. If the source of the funding isn't a problem, no problem declaring it. If the source is a problem, consider whether you should be pocketing it.

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