New Zealand to crack down on foreign political donations

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand will ban foreign donations to politicians and tighten disclosure rules for political advertising, the government said on Tuesday, as concerns over foreign interference intensify ahead of an election next year.

The move follows warnings, including from the country’s intelligence agency, of the risk of foreign meddling in New Zealand politics.

The government introduced legislation into Parliament banning donations over NZ$50 ($32) to political parties and candidates by foreigners, a sharp decrease from the current NZ$1,500 threshold.

“The risk of foreign interference in elections is a growing international phenomenon and can take many forms, including donations. New Zealand is not immune from this risk,” Justice Minister Andrew Little said in a statement.

The new laws also would require the names and addresses of those funding election advertisements in all mediums to be published to reduce the “avalanche of fake-news social-media ads” that had marred elections overseas, Little said.

Questions about New Zealand political donations were raised in 2018 after a lawmaker accused the leader of the opposition National Party of hiding a NZ$100,000 donation from a Chinese businessman to avoid declaring it. The National Party leader rejected the charge.

New Zealand will hold its next general election in late 2020 and Little said further action could be taken to counter foreign influence based on recommendations from a parliamentary committee that was looking at the issue.

New Zealand’s allies in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing community - Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States - have all expressed concern over foreign influence in politics in recent years.

Australia bans donations from foreigners that are over A$1,000 ($679), while Canada barrs those over C$20 ($15) and the United Kingdom blocks those over 500 pounds ($641).

New Zealand’s ban would cover those living outside New Zealand who were not eligible to vote or New Zealand citizens, as well as unincorporated companies with a head office overseas.

Figures from a Ministry of Justice publication detailing overseas political donations showed in 2018, the ruling Labour Party had received a total of NZ$900 in foreign donations, while the Green Party had received a total of NZ$510.

During 2017, the last election year, the National Party had received seventeen donations totaling NZ$17,180 as well as two which together totaled more than NZ$50,000 - most of which were returned to the donors because they were over the current legal threshold.

While the New Zealand government did not single out a specific threat on Tuesday, British and U.S. intelligence agencies accuse Russia of meddling in domestic politics and elections of several Western countries including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia denies the allegations.

New Zealand’s intelligence chief said in April the agency was concerned about activities by foreign state actors, including attempts to covertly influence politicians and monitor expatriate communities in the South Pacific nation.

Australia has accused China of similar activities and has cracked down on foreign political donations and lobbying. China also denies the allegations.

Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Stephen Coates and Lincoln Feast.