You can make a submission until 10 December on the Electoral (Administration) Amendment Bill.
The bill is generally excellent – it merges the Electoral Commission and the Chief Electoral Office, and allows the Commission to give advice on the legality of propose ads etc.
The one change I would like is to the method of appointment of the Electoral Commissioners. The current bill provides for the Minister to (effectively) appoint them after consulting with other parties. I would like to see the appointments either made by Parliament directly, or for the consultation requirement to be made an agreement requirement.
The reason is that different Ministers interpret a consultation requirement in different ways. I know in the 1990s that National consulted Helen Clark as Opposition Leader on some appointments and actually withdrew proposed nominees after Clark objected.
But when Margaret Wilson was Attorney-General, she was terrible. Her idea of consultation was to send a letter out Friday notifying the name of the person she proposes to have Cabinet appoint on Monday.
I was hoping some MPs would touch on this issue in the first reading, and they did:
Hon DAVID PARKER (Labour) : The Labour Opposition will be supporting the Electoral (Administration) Amendment Bill. I thank the Minister of Justice for the consultative process that has surrounded this bill. He has properly engaged with Labour, as, indeed, I am sure he has with other parties in this House in the preparation of this bill. As a consequence of that, Labour members are happy to support it in its reference to a select committee. Initially, the Electoral Commission, which is a new body set up by this bill and not the current Electoral Commission, was to include the Secretary for Justice as a member. Labour and, I understand, some other parties said that would not be right. Of course, the Secretary for Justice is the head of a Government department, so it would not be appropriate for that office holder to hold a role on the new Electoral Commission. The Minister agreed with that, so the commission will now be fully independent, and we agree that that is appropriate.
This is an example of good consultation. Simon Power had feedback from other parties, and modified the proposal. My concern is not about Simon as Minister of Justice failing to act on consultations. He won’t be Minister for ever, and my concern is some future Minister will act like Margaret Wilson and ignore any objections from consultation. That is why I think it should requirement agreement, not consultation.
I think there is still a question as to how the commission should be appointed. I have heard some people suggest that the commission ought to be appointed by Parliament, rather than by the Minister as part of the Government. I think that some people may submit on that issue to the select committee. We in Labour would be interested to hear from submitters and be informed by them on that matter.
I’m glad David Parker raised the issue, and hope that Labour will agree to a change – despite the fact they will be Government again one day.
The need for independence is even greater now, with the Chief Electoral Officer being one of the three Commissioners, as the CEO is the key individual who actually runs the election, and declares the result.
Previously the CEO was within the Ministry of Justice. So the State Services Commissioner appointed the Secretary of Justice and the Secretary of Justice appointed the CEO. While I don’t particularly like it being witin the Ministry of Justice, it did make it hard for a Minister to put in someone inappropriate.
Now though the Minister can appoint the Chief Electoral Officer directly. That is too great a power I submit.
METIRIA TUREI (Co-Leader—Green) : I do not intend to take a long call on the Electoral (Administration) Amendment Bill. The Green Party will support its first reading to get it before the select committee. We look forward to submissions by the public on the bill. …
When the National Government consulted the Greens on the proposal, we suggested from the outset that an Officer of Parliament – type body should be established, that it would be preferable to ensure that the new agency is absolutely and fully independent of the Government, and does not report to a Minister. The Officer of Parliament model is used here in Aotearoa with the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, for example. It is also used in Canada for their electoral organisation and management. It places the oversight of the body with Parliament, as opposed to a ministry of the Government managed by one particular political interest. It reinforces its role to oversee and enable free and fair elections, which is a core concern of the House of Representatives and of Parliament. Certainly an Officer of Parliament model would be perceived by the public as more truly independent and would have more ability to comment on how the electoral process is operating, because it would not report to a particular Minister in the executive.
I agree with Metiria that the Commission is most suitable to be an Officer of Parliament. If this change is not practical in the short-term, than a fallback option is to at least require the Minister to gain agreement, not just consultation, with a super-majority of parties on appointments.
CHARLES CHAUVEL (Labour) :
There is also the police, and I will speak a little bit about their function, because the police are the enforcement body as far as our electoral law is concerned.
Although Labour supports this bill being read a first time, we believe that the bill does not address the issue of the enforcement machinery when there is a breach of electoral law. I suggest that that might be something the select committee looks at. The problem that the police always have, of course, is that electoral offences never go to the top of the queue. The police will always be concerned with crimes against the person, and with dealing particularly with violent crime. They will never be able to prioritise electoral matters, nor will they necessarily have the forensic expertise to do so. These days those questions require skills in dealing with tracking donations and financial disclosures, and so on, which call for quite sophisticated levels of skill that are probably more properly found in organisations like the Serious Fraud Office rather than the police. It might well be that with the forensic skills that are required, it would be useful to think about having an enforcement function under this new independent Crown entity rather than the police being responsible for that function, if we are truly interested in bringing all the functions together in an expert body that has the resources and the time to deal with the questions before it.
I agree with Charles that the Police do not see electoral breaches as a priority and it would be better with the Commission. However that is not so much an issue for this bill, but more for the bill which will come out of the Govt’s electoral finance review.
The final point I make is that if one has a look at the explanatory note, one sees that one of the options canvassed was to have an Officer of Parliament for this function. Personally, I think that would have been the most compelling option to go for. The explanatory note suggests there was not enough time to get that sort of apparatus going before the next election. But if we really want a truly independent body, charged with the conduct of elections in an honest and serious way, then, given the conduct of our other Officers of Parliament, in whom we have enormous faith, then that seems to me to be the best way to go.
What has been nice is that all the Opposition praised Simon Power for his consultation with them over the bill. It is great to see the merger happening after years and years of no action, and electoral law should be an area of bipartisanship as much as possible – it is too important to be treated as a bauble of office, as some sort of winner takes all prize.
I hope other people take the time to do a submission. If you don’t, then no complaining if you wake up one day in the future to read that Winston Peters has been appointed as an Electoral Commissioner 🙂