Coalition for Open Government

A group of interested individuals (including former Electoral Commission CEO Paul Harris) has reformed the Coalition for Open Government, to campaign for strong new election finance laws.

I welcome such an initiative as I believe it is vital that the rewrite of our Electoral Act is not done purely by Labour and friends, to benefit them.

They are calling for five things at this point:

1. Ban anonymous donations greater than $20 and disclose any donors greater than $200 a year, stop donations via trusts or other people.

The limits are far too low but requiring an identity for donations over $100, and disclosure over $1,000 would be more reasonable. People should be able to make say a $250 donation, and not have their boss know about it. This is a real issue for civil servants.

2. Limit the size of donations to $5,000 a year, and no more than $1,000 per candidate.

Labour may not be too happy with having their $500,000 overseas donor cut off! I am not sure whether one can justify such a limit though, if anonymous donations are banned. If the identity of large donors are known, then that acts as the best safeguard against any possibility of favours for donations.

Such a limit would seriously impact parties ability to communicate with the public, and that is a vital part of informed elections. I think it is potentially undemocratic – certainly at that level.

Also one has to look at the consequences of such a low limit. The US has an even lower limit at $2,000 but they have the worst system in the world for buying influence. What happens though is the major donations go to third party groups and lobbyists which have less accountability than political parties. It’s well intentioned but the effect will be to make our system more like the US, not less.

3. Control third-party election campaigning with disclosure and spending caps

I’m in favour of this in principle (if one caps political parties, one should cap third parties) but it may be near impossible to define without infringing free speech. You would have to have the spending cap apply only to paid advertising, and not to media releases, Internet campaigns, marches.

Also it can be trivially easy to get around the spending cap by just setting up multiple groups. Here’s one example – say you have a $100,000 spending cap. Instead of having the CTU spend $250,000, you may have five unions spend $50,000 each. And there are ways to have this happen without it being collusion.

I very much support enhanced disclosure of identity though.

4. Enforce the laws effectively by having parties liable for electoral law breaches, increased penalties and wider definition of election expenses

I have advocated for over a year that parties, not just individuals, must be made liable for breaches of electoral laws and increasing the maximum penalty to $1 million for a corrupt practice or seven years jail is around what I have advocated. Labour would never have lied to and ignored the Chief Electoral Officer if the penalties were more significant for doing so.

But the Coalition loses it with their suggestion that internal expenses such as staff, research and polling be included as part of a party’s spending limit. Of course I may be seen as conflicted, but you are setting up an unworkable law where you need to decide if certain staff are strategists or not. This will lead to creative accounting 101. God I can think of 30 ways such a system would be unworkable. Do you include MPs salaries as part of campaign expenses. What if research is part policy and part political. Do you divide it per question. It would be a nightmare with no consistency and no way to fairly measure.

The Coalition ignores the public policy rationale for a spending limit. It is to stop one party dominating the communicaton channels by buying ten times as much press, direct mail, as other parties.

They also ignore that our election spending caps are ridicolously low. They come to barely $1 per voter. That is enough for two personally targeted direct mail letters at most. In fact I would argue the current spending limits are so low they prevent effective communications from the party. $20,000 to reach 40,000 voters is insanely low. What it does is mean that almost all info voters receive is based on the press gallery and media reporting of issues, rather than parties directly communicating with voters.

I would suggest a spending limit of $5 million nationally and $50,000 per electorate. There is no way that amount of money “buys” campaigns – we have seen that with results for previous elections having little resemblance to amounts spent.

I do agree with the Coalition over merging the three electoral agencies into one. I don’t know why Labour keeps refusing to do this.

5. Make all public funding of elections fairer and more transparent – linking it to a party’s popular support, and abolish the broadcasting rules.

I am in favour of parties being able to buy broadcast time on top of their allocation. I do not accept that the current Parliament has any mandate to bring in enhanced party funding for this election. The public have shown their displeasure at the improper use of taxpayer funds last election, and the public must be given a chance to approve any significant increase in taxpayer funding. This means either a referendum or a number of parties go into the election campaign promising to introduce full taxpayer funding, and if elected on the basis of an explicit polict, then they have a mandate to do so.

But what should not be tolerated is Labour and some allies, starved of funds by being unpopular, legislating to fund themselves form the taxpayer for 2008, without a voter mandate.

Anyway a long post. Well done to the Coalition for starting the debate. It is too important to leave it to the Government alone to decide.

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