John Key on Electoral Finance Bill

John Key is taking the opportunity of an address to the National Press Club to deal to the Electoral Finance Bill. I’m delighted to see the Leader of the Opposition take on this issue personally. There is no greater issue before us than this bill in my opinion.

The speech is superb, and I really encourage people to read it in full because it tells a story that a few extracts won’t do justice to. However as usual here are some quotes:

This is not just a poorly written bill, not just an ill-conceived bill, and not just a bad bill, although it is certainly all of those. Most of all, this is a dangerous bill. It is dangerous for all of us as individuals, it is dangerous for our democracy, and it is dangerous for New Zealand.

One of the key planks of democracy is that all citizens are free to express themselves on all political issues.

They are free to criticise the government. They are free to criticise the opposition. They are free to promote policies they like and protest against policies they abhor.

They march, they make placards, they deliver leaflets. They produce brochures, they send emails, they build websites. They take out advertisements in the paper, they call public meetings, they circulate petitions.

Two of the most powerful examples in recent years have been the debates over the foreshore and seabed, and over the smacking legislation. People had strong opinions, they were organised and they had their say, often loudly. A healthy democracy doesn’t just tolerate this – in fact, it requires it.

This is about the fundamentals of our democracy. I have said before that if I had to choose between losing my voice and losing my vote, I would go for the latter as I only get to vote once every three years but exercise my free speech rights every day.

 

English sportswriter Martin Johnson once said there were only three things wrong with the England cricket team – they can’t bat, they can’t bowl, and they can’t field.

In a similar vein, I think there are “only” three things wrong with the Electoral Finance Bill – the regulated election period is ludicrously long, the definition of publishing an election advertisement is ludicrously wide, and the hurdles that third parties have to jump are ludicrously high.

I love the analogy. The salient point is that these are not minor details to be tweaked at select committee. They are the core of the bill. I would also add on the limits are far far too low.

 

So next year, when you wake up on New Year’s Day, you will find that you are in an election period. It may not feel like that. You may think you’re on holiday at the beach or at a camping ground. Politicians and elections are likely to be the furthest things from your mind.

However, this bill makes it so that from 1 January on, and for up to 11 months, you are in an election period where free speech is tightly regulated and restricted. Because this period is so long, New Zealanders could spend up to 30% of their adult lives in a period of restricted speech. That is totally unacceptable.

Absolutely. Any period of restriction should be the minimum necessary. In Canada the restrictions only apply from the issuing of the writs – six weeks or so.

 

 

The bill also introduces a new type of election advertisement. The bill counts as an election advertisement any form of words or graphics that takes a position on a proposition with which a party or a candidate is associated.

On top of this, the definition of publishing an election advertisement covers buying advertising space in a newspaper – which you’d expect – but also includes handing out a leaflet, displaying a placard, issuing a press release, sending an email, posting on a website, and mailing a letter. The definition is so wide that it includes almost all forms of communication except for speaking to someone face to face.

The effect of this new definition is actually to put politicians in an incredibly privileged position in our society.

In an election year there are no restrictions on publicly discussing an issue until such a time as a party or candidate takes a position on that issue. Once a member of the “political elite” has taken a view, however, every other New Zealander is restricted in how they can advocate on that issue. In an election year, ordinary New Zealanders are relegated to being second-class citizens.

As I have said before, the Electoral Commission will need an RSS feed of banned topics so we can keep up to date with what issues are now off limits to the plebs. The moment an issue is associated with a party or candidate, we are restricted in what we can say about it.

 

This bill – this bill which the Government says will “help promote participation in parliamentary democracy” – says that no one, except political parties, can take out more than two full-page ads in a major newspaper over the course of an entire year about anything touching on politics.

How dare the Government propose a measure like that. Do we live in a democracy or don’t we? Are we free to express ourselves on all political issues?

In this country you have a right to have your say on Labour policy, on National policy, on Green policy, on any policy you like, and you have a right not be muzzled by the government.

 

Think about what would happen if the smacking debate or the debate about the foreshore and seabed occurred in an election year under the provisions of this bill. Discussion of these issues would have been restricted and debate would have been muted. And that would have suited the Government just fine.

 

It will also greatly disadvantage groups which comment on a wide range of policies. For the $60,000 is not per issue but per organisation for the year. So if Family First spends it $60,000 on the anti smacking debate, it then can’t advertise on any other issue. If the Automobile Association spends $60,000 campaigning for less congested roads in Auckland it can’t then spend any money advocating for Transmission Gully in Wellington.

 

But the biggest exemption is for MPs, who can publish whatever they like if they are doing it as an MP. That includes spending taxpayers’ money on a pledge card. If Labour puts out a pledge card in the next election, it will not count towards the Labour Party’s election spending cap.

They really have no shame. It is a blatant gerrymandering of our constitution to protect the current Government.

 

Also, government departments can continue to spend unlimited amounts of taxpayers’ money publicising policies, as we’ve seen with the millions of dollars of KiwiSaver and Working for Families ads – and they can do this right up to the day of the election.

Basically, this bill is saying: don’t you worry, citizens of New Zealand – leave all the politics to politicians, the media and bloggers. We’ll tell you want to think. You can trust us.

Hey I object to bloggers being tied in with media 🙂

 

This deeply flawed and anti-democratic bill needs to be ripped up and tossed in the bin.

The Prime Minister says there’s no need for that. She says any problems with the bill will be ironed out by the select committee, which contains representatives from all parties.

The problem is we are not talking about ironing out glitches, or correcting drafting errors, which is what select committees are good at. We are talking about a bill that is a total and utter mess. It is so heavy-handed it replaces 32 sections of the with 158 of its own. And we are talking about a bill that has been developed in completely the wrong way.

I agree. It can’t be fixed. It is far too important an Act to have last minute badly drafted law changes made to it.

 

Key then points out he is not oppossed to changes, but wants them developed, with consultation, based off the existing Act:

 

We would support a limit on third-party spending in an election period. Political parties and candidates are capped in their spending so it makes sense that third parties are as well. Organisations should not be allowed to spend unlimited sums of money trying to influence an election.

 

Also my position.

 

We are also prepared to see changes that make donations to parties more transparent. The fact there are no such proposals in the Electoral Finance Bill is because Labour chose not to include them. It is not due to National in any way whatsoever. We have consistently said we are open to changes in this area.

It is good to have the Opposition Leader himself reaffirm that National does support the change that almost everyone except Helen Clark wants. Her dropping of the sections dealing with this was disgraceful with the only justification being Labour needs the money.

 

In my view, political parties and other organisations need to know in advance when the election is to be held so they can comply with the law. I think serious consideration should be given to making the government give three months notice of the election date. When such notice is given, the regulated election period could then begin.

That would be a great move. Clark will never do it, but let’s hold National to that when they are in office. As a campaign manager last time I can tell you how bloody difficult it is to plan sensibly when you don’t even know if your expenditure is going to count or not until some weeks after you authorise it.

 

And then some ending words on the bill of rights:

 

Here in New Zealand we often take our democratic freedoms for granted. We think they will always be there. We have a Bill of Rights which is supposed to protect our right to freedom of expression. What on Earth could go wrong?

I have a different view. I believe what Thomas Jefferson said – that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We cannot and we must not take democratic freedoms for granted.

Because, in reality, it is not a Bill of Rights that protects our rights. It is not up to a solicitor in the Crown Law Office or an official in the Ministry of Justice. In the end, it is not up to the government at all.

The protection of rights lies with us, the citizens of New Zealand. There are times when we have to stand up for our rights, and the rights of our neighbours and friends, and indeed the rights of people we totally disagree with, or else these rights will begin to erode away.

We should count ourselves lucky that standing up for democracy in this country doesn’t involve marching through tear gas, or printing leaflets in a hidden cellar, or standing in front of a tank.

But little battles can be as important as big ones. And, though it is not as glamorous or as terrifying, you are just as much fighting for democracy by putting a submission on the Electoral Finance Bill.

You don’t have to agree with my analysis of what should change. You should make up your own mind and you should express it with the courage of your convictions.

That is what living in a democracy is all about.

Absolutely. This issue is too important to remain silent on. And yes I will be providing some guides to people for making submissions. It doesn’t take long to say “Kill the Bill” as it infringes on your rights to criticise the Government and other parties.

 

Incidentally here’s an ironic challenge for the lawyers. If this bill is passed, will sending in a submission to a bill, if done in election year, count as an election advertisement and be illegal unless you do a statutory declaration or register? I’d say it will be.

 

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