David Benson-Pope will be happy – his complaint to the Electoral Commission against ACT has been upheld.
Up until 2005 Sir Robert Jones provided free office space to ACT for an out of parliament office. The value was around $20,000 a year.
ACT’s position was:
The Party Secretary acknowledges that the office space was provided “for an Out of Parliament office” used for the Wellington-based list MPs to carry out their constituency work and that the office staff and equipment were funded by Parliamentary Services out of the budget provided for the list MPs.
The Secretary states that the party did not use the office for campaigning or other party purposes, as the party obtained another office for those purposes.
The Secretary claims that the party did not benefit from the provision of the office space and
therefore did not need to declare it.
In a way this is really about whether a donation to a parliamentary section of a party counts as a donation to the party. The consequences of this ruling could be quite large, as any MP who gets a cheap rate for their out of parliament office may be covered by this.
The Commission ruled that the parliamentary section of a party is considered part of a party, and the free rent was a donation that should have been declared. The deadline for prosecutions has expired, luckily for ACT. They have asked ACT to file amended returns for the affected years.
Some will claim a moral equivalence with NZ First. That is nonsense. There is a reasonable argument (even though they lost the argument) about whether free OOP office space for MPs (which by definition should not be used for political or campaign activity) should be included as a party donation. There is no argument over receiving large sums of money directly and not declaring them.
This does not mean ACT can not be criticised for their decision. If I was in their shoes I would have pro-actively asked the Electoral Commission for a ruling on whether free office space for an MPs office constitutes a donation to the party itself. Erring on the side of caution is sensible when it comes to electoral law.