I’m happy to pre-announce the formation of a new resource for election year – the You Paid For It blog.
It will be officially launched on 1 January 2008 to coincide with the start of the soon to be regulated election period.
The idea behind the blog is that we will be encouraging everyone to look out for anything they get sent which has the parliamentary crest on it. If you see the crest, it means you paid for it. And we want people to upload, or e-mail or even post in all the material they come across – pamphlets, newsletters, advertisements, pens, banners. And this applies to all parties and all MPs.
We also will welcome any background details to the scans – how you got it, where it was published, estimated no of copies.
This material may become invaluable – both for public scrutiny of taxpayer funded advertising, but also for any electoral petitions or police prosecutions.
You see the Government has not succeeded in getting a total exemption for parliamentary expenditure under the Electoral Finance Bill. As they are being forced to clarify Clause 81(2)(g) it means that even if it approved by the Parliamentary Service, it still will have an independent test under the Electoral Act of does it encourage or persuade people to support or not support a party or candidate or type of party or candidate.
Now combined with the extension of the regulated period to all of election year, it means that anything an MP spends on publicity next year *may* be able to be counted as party or candidate expenditure under the Act, even if approved by the Parliamentary Service. It will have to be seen as encouraging or persuading people to vote, but that is not always clear cut as we saw with the pledge card.
So MPs had better be very careful with spending their $65,000 parliamentary budget. If $5,000 of that $65,000 they spend ends up classified as election advertising, and they have spent $16,000 directly on the campaign, then bang they have overspent and they are out of Parliament.
Every letter, every advert, every newsletter will be scrutinised for electioneering. There could be multiple election petitions to get rulings on what is or is not an election advertisement and does it qualify for the parliamentary purposes exemption. Where onece you could avoid this uncertainity by just not spending any of your parliamentary budget on advertising in the last 90 days, now you will have to second guess all your expenditure all year long.
And MPs should also remember the advice of the Solictor-General which is just having part of a publication as electioneering means the whole thing qualifies. So your electorate newsletter might be 95% okay, but just one paragraph can turn it into an election advertisement, and bang there goes your seat.
The sensible thing is to stay with the status quo – a 90 day regulated period where one stops spending your parliamentary budget on advertising and the cap kicks in from the same spot. It allowed risk to be minimised. But by extending the regulated period to the whole year, it means everything published by you next year will be open to electoral challenge. And this new website is designed to record evidence of such taxpayer funded advertising so that anyone who does wish to do electoral challenges, or complaints to the electoral authorities and/or the Police will have the source material to do so.