Shutting down dissent

July 24th, 2007 at 8:22 am by David Farrar

The Government has released its Electoral Finance Bill. It’s 73 pages long and has too much detail to be dealt with in one post, so I’ll do a series of posts, each dealing with one aspect. There are some good things in there like the Canadian idea of financial agents. Penalties for breaches have been increased (which is good) but are still too low by at least a magnitude and maximum penalties should be ten times those in the Bill. Also disappointingly there is no provision for parties as well as individuals to be held liable.

But the parts I want to focus on today, is three changes. The combination of the three changes represent the biggest threat to free speech and the ability to effectively criticise the Government in recent times.

The Government is changing three things:

  1. It is changing the period of time during which spending is regulated from 90 days before the election to 1 January of election year, which will usually be 11 months.
  2. It is restricting the amount third parties can spent on “election advertising” to $60,000.
  3. It is introducing a new definition of “election advertising” which includes “taking a position on a proposition with which 1 or more parties or 1 or more candidates is associated”

The combination of these three things will shut down any significant criticism of the Government in election year, except by the media. Whether you are on the left or right you should be appalled at this, and preparing to do battle. Remember one day there will be a National Government, and I think people should be able to run ads against what National does when in office. This bill will stop you.

The regulated period

Clause 4 defines the regulated period as “the period that commences on 1 January of that year and ends with the close of polling day” if it is a year in which Parliament is due to expire.

This totally advantages the incumbent Government. It closes down advertising by Opposition parties and third parties for all of election year, but leaves them more able to undertake advertising.

The traditional 90 day period was all about a level playing field, not just on party advertising but also parliamentary and government advertising. The traditional consensus was that parliamentary and government advertising reduce to the bare minimum during the last 90 days, and the parties be restricted to a couple of million each.

Now let us look at what Labour’s changes do to each of the three sorts of advertising:

  • Government advertising is totally unrestricted and can occur throughout all of election year. The Government can spend millions promoting its election year budget, all legally.
  • Parliamentary advertising has been significantly liberalised due to the law over-ruling the Auditor-General. Labour can now fund their pledge card from the taxpayer legally, and distribute it a month before the election
  • Spending by registered parties is greatly reduced. Not only are the limits not even adjusted for inflation, they now apply over an 11 month period instead of a three month period.
  • Spending by third parties is now restricted for all of election year

So what Labour is doing is making it easier for it to spend taxpayer money without challenge in election year, and making it much harder for anyone to criticise what they are doing by doing their own advertising.

The limits for third parties

Now I am not against there being some limits on third parties, seeing there are limits on registered parties, for the last 90 days. Parties can spend $2 million or so, so a limit of say $1 million on a third party could be justified. Remember the problem with the Exclusive Brethren wasn’t that they spent money, but that they were secretive about who was behind it. The new disclosure laws cover that.

A limit of $60,000 spread over 11 months can only be seen as wanting to silence critics. That is around $5,000 a month only. A full page advert in just one newspaper – the NZ Herald – can cost $36,000. So Labour is saying a third party group can not do more than two full pages ads over a year criticising the Government, and only in one city. $60,000 will only get a couple of spots on TV for just one evening. And this is over an 11 month period. It is draconian.

Definition of election advertising

Clause 5(1) defines an election advertisement. Paragraph (a)(i) basically says it includes encouraging people to vote for or not to vote for one or more parties. So that now includes phrases such as “vote out the Government”.

Paragraph (a)(ii) says it also includes encouraging votes for or against a type of party or type of candidate that is described by reference to views, positions or policies of parties or candidates. That means if you are NORML and want to campaign against MPs who do not support cannabis decriminalisation, just saying “Do not vote for MPs who do not support cannabis decriminalisation” is restricted to $60,000 over an entire year.

Paragraph (a)(iii) is the one which made me drop the Bill in disbelief and start phoning people though. This one is the clincher. It says an election advertisements includes

“taking a position on a proposition with which 1 or more parties or 1 or more candidates is associated”

Now just think about this. Anything Labour announces in its election year budget. If you spend any money advocating against it, then bang the limit sets in. You don’t even have to say “Do not vote Labour because their student loans policy is bad”. Just running an ad saying “Free interest on student loans is a bad idea because …” is illegal unless you are a registered third party and you keep spending to under $60,000 in election year.

Also be aware this definition applies to registered parties also. So if National spends money campaigning against a particular policy in February, then it has to spend less money in the actual campaign. Yet Labour has unlimited money from the taxpayer to promote Government policies.

These changes must be stopped in their current form. It is as simple as that. They are unacceptable.

One redeeming aspect is paragraph (2)(g) of Clause 5(2) which exempts blogs from the law. And yes the bill even refers to blogs by name. It says: in reference to things which are not election advertisements

“the publication by an individual, on a non-commercial basis, on the Internet of his or her personal political views (being the kind of publication commonly known as a blog).

Firstly thanks to whoever did put that clause in. But it does show how wide reaching the new definitions are, that they have had to put in a blog exemption. If you are an organisation and run a website, and take a position on a policy associated with a political party, then your website costs may have to be declared as part of your limit.

Also the blog exemption may need some tidying up. Does me receiving some minor income from Google ads make me commercial? At what level could it be seen to do so?

There are now two big issues before New Zealand. One is public service neutrality and the other is freedom of speech. And the two may well be linked. Read what Dominion Post political editor Tracy Watkins says on the Satchell sacking:

The reason Ms Setchell’s job was deemed so sensitive was that Prime Minister Helen Clark had placed carbon neutrality at the forefront of Labour’s political agenda. Ministry staff have been told to rack their brains for bold plans which are likely to form the centrepiece of Labour’s election campaign.

Hitherto the ministry has been an innocuous arm of the civil service. Now the Government’s future may rest partly on the ministry’s ability to help formulate election- winning policies to woo the increasingly critical green vote.

The decision to try to shift Ms Setchell out of a job which would give her access to the Government’s strategy in this highly sensitive area can point to only one thing – that the Government sees the ministry not just as the department that will implement government policy, but as its de facto political and strategic arm.

That sets the controversial and costly Working for Families ad campaign by government departments (roughly $18 million, down from $24 million after the auditor- general intervened) in a whole new light.

So the Government prepares to politicise the civil service further by having them run huge ad campaigns in election year to “inform” people of Government policies. And at the same time they reduce the ability of either the Opposition or third parties to criticise them, except my media release.

Any price for a fourth term.

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