The Bill of Wrongs

The Listener joins the chorus against the Electoral Finance Bill:

The new electoral spending proposals are anti-democratic.

When Justice Minister Mark Burton told Parliament that the government was “seeking to encourage full and open expression from a diverse range of interests in the run-up to a general election”, he must have known that he could hardly have been introducing a bill less likely to achieve that.

As drafted, the bill casts its net so widely that potentially something as innocuous as writing a personal letter saying “Don’t vote for so-and-so” would bring the writer under its auspices. It would be laughable if it were not so alarming.

If the bill is passed in this shoddy form, it would very likely result in hundreds and possibly thousands of New Zealanders inadvertently committing breaches of the law from January 1 next year. And it would be for no other reason than trying to do exactly what Burton, and most New Zealanders, would say is desirable, namely, having “full and open expression from a diverse range of interests in the run-up to a general election”.

The most grievous part of the proposals is the restrictions and impositions placed on “third parties”. Again, the government probably had in mind the Exclusive Brethren, but every group from Women’s Refuge to Federated Farmers would be affected. By the bill’s own definition, “election advertising” includes encouraging someone to vote or not to vote for one or more parties, and is also defined as “taking a position on a proposition with which one or more candidates, or one or more parties, is associated”.

So, other than political parties, no individual or group is allowed to spend more than $60,000, which is about the cost of one full-page ad in three metropolitan newspapers on a single day, in the entire calendar year up until the election, commenting on any subject on which any party has a policy. And the group will first have to register with the Electoral Commission. That is not fostering full and open expression. Rather, it gives the government a largely unfettered run in election year. It is an embarrassment that the bill in its present form has been put before Parliament.

But even that is not the end of it. If a group that is not an incorporated society happens to have even a single member who is not a registered voter – for example, because they might be only 17 – then that group is not allowed to become a registered third party and can spend no more than $5000 in election year.

And even those likely to spend less than $5000 are still caught in the net. As the Coalition for Open Government has pointed out, a student who writes in chalk on a footpath “Keep NZ GE Free” will have to sign a statutory declaration that their election expenses will not amount to more than $5000 and they will have to write alongside their slogan their full name and residential address. This restrictive and ridiculous bill will curb the vigorous and spontaneous debate that is desirable in a democracy in an election year.

The Electoral Finance Bill gives the strong impression that there has been a quantum shift in thinking about participation in public debate. Suddenly, it is as though any forms of communication to do with politics after January 1 – unless it is by the media, bloggers or the government itself (and possibly even some government communications will be caught) – are dangerous and need to be monitored and restricted. The proposition is absurd. There is no evidence to support it. It is not the public’s excess that needs curbing in this draconian proposal, it is the government’s.

Public submissions on this bill are now being sought. People should have their say. If they don’t, after January 1 they may find they cannot say much at all.

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