Rough ride ahead for election spending bill

NZPA, New Zealand/July 25, 2007

The Government's Electoral Finance Bill, introduced on Monday, is going to ignite some of the most contentious debates this parliamentary term.

Although it has been on the table only three days and hasn't yet reached the debating chamber, it has attracted widespread criticism from the National Party, the Greens and sector groups with an interest in politics.

The bill was drafted mainly to deal with the activities of third parties during an election campaign, triggered by the Exclusive Brethren.

In 2005 the Brethren ran an initially covert campaign against Labour and the Greens with the aim of helping National win. It backfired and probably did National more harm than good, but the Government is determined not to let it happen again.

It says the Brethren spent more than $1 million on its pamphlet campaign, although the sect puts the figure at closer to $500,000.

Whatever the actual figure was, the Brethren had huge resources at their disposal. Not many other non-party organisations have that much cash to lay out during a campaign.

If this bill becomes law, and if it isn't significantly changed during the legislative process, it won't matter how much money any organisation has. They will be allowed to spend $60,000, and that's it.

Justice Minister Mark Burton says the bill levels the playing field.

Business sector organisations don't see it that way, and are complaining that $60,000 will only pay for a couple of full-page ads in the main newspapers.

Is that a restriction on free speech and the ability of such organisations to put their point across? That is a question that will be argued fiercely in Parliament as the bill goes through its process, but it isn't the only one.

The bill also deals with spending by political parties, and under its terms an election campaign will be deemed to start on January 1 of an election year.

Parties that contest the party vote in an election can spend up to $1 million plus $20,000 for each electorate candidate they nominate, and the Electoral Commission calls them to account if they go over the limit.

The spending limit covers the three months before election day.

In 2005 National did something Labour wasn't expecting. It started a highly effective billboard blitz well before the three-month campaign period started.

That meant the money it spent on the billboards was outside the cap.

Labour thought National was peaking early, and confidently waited for it to run out of money during the campaign period. It didn't, it had a bigger fighting fund than Labour had thought.

A level playing field? National doesn't think so, and it has a point.

There is a fine line between promoting policies and electioneering.

The Government can use taxpayer money to promote its policies by way of explaining them to the public.

The advertising campaign around Kiwisaver is an example. It doesn't ask anyone to vote Labour, it tells them what Kiwisaver is and the benefits it can deliver to those who take it up.

National suspects that the Government is going to pour millions of dollars into explaining its policies next year. Its policy on climate change is expected to be a key campaign issue, and it will be able to legitimately promote it throughout next year.

Both the main parties have used this tactic in the past when they have held office, and if National was the government now it might have a different view of the bill. But it can also say now that it would never introduce such unfair legislation.

Then there are the things that the bill doesn't do, and they are causing just as much trouble.

It doesn't touch the $10,000 threshold for anonymous donations to parties, and they will still be able to channel money through trusts which hide the identity of donors.

The Government has decided to hand this issue to an independent panel which will consider the big picture of party funding, including the controversial question of whether they should be state-funded.

The panel hasn't yet been appointed and won't have to report until after the next election.

The Greens, the Coalition for Open Government and trade unions have condemned this omission from the bill introduced on Monday.

The Greens call the present system "cake stalls versus corporates", and says the playing field is very uneven.

It says National received $1.7 million through anonymous donations in 2005, while Labour got $300,000.

The Greens want all donations over $1000 to be disclosed.

Coalition for Open Government spokesman Steven Price said his organisation strongly supported the cap on third parties.

"But it's ludicrous that the bill doesn't require the same of political parties – knowing who funds our political parties is far more important than knowing who is bankrolling third parties," said Mr Price.

Mr Burton has the numbers to get the bill through its first reading. After that the public and all the organisations who are worried about it will have their say. The Justice and Electoral Select Committee is going to have an interesting time.

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