The Electoral Finance Act strikes again

I blogged last Friday on how the Electoral Finance Act’s extension of the regulated period to all of 2008, was causing huge problems in Parliament. MPs face the possibility of multiple electoral petitions after the election seeking court rulings on whether their taxpayer funded spending counts as an election expense or not.

I understand from the last electoral petition, that defending one costs somewhere between $100,000 to $200,000. Labour is going to have to get a mighty big loan from Owen Glenn to help them cover the costs of potentially up to 20 electoral petitions, unless they adopt an incredibly conservative approach to their parliamentary spending.

The Herald reports that taxpayer funded publications will also now be able to carry party political authorisation statements from party financial agents. So they will have a parliamentary crest on them which is meant to represent the fact the publication is not electioneering and taxpayer funded, but also have a party financial agent authorisation on them which is meant to represent they are electioneering.

Electoral Commission chief executive Helena Catt fuelled the caution of political parties, saying she would not exempt material as being advertising simply because it had a parliamentary crest.

What really surprised MPs was that she said if it was advertising, it should also be counted against a party or candidate as an election expense. MPs passing the law late last year believed the act gave their parliamentary material an exemption on the expenses ledger if it was produced in their capacity as an MP.

But Dr Catt said Parliament gave the commission virtually no guidance as to what that term meant and the commission was working towards producing its own guidance.

This should not be a huge surprise. Dr Catt went to the trouble of publicly warning last year that the Act was unclear with regards to the parliamentary exemption. She even went on radio to discuss it.

Now what happened after that is Annette King as Justice Minister came up with a definiton, which seemed to satisfy the Electoral Commission. But after beign squashed by the ninth floor (as Annette’s definition would have ruled out material such as Labour’s pledge card) she humiliated herself by publicly recanting on her definition and repeatedly declaring to Parliament that she was wrong.   So the poor Electoral Commission have ended up having to work out their own definition.

And I suspect it is almost inevitable that those definitions will be tested in court.

This is a timely reminder to people that if you receive at home or work any material at all with the parliamentary crest on it, submit it to the You Paid For It website. Submitting it to the website doesn’t mean that one is alleging the publication should not have been funded by Parliament and it doesn’t necessarily mean the publication should be included as an election advertisement and/or expense. But it will preserve a copy which can be scrutinised by legal experts for possible use in electoral petitions or prosecutions. It also provides transparency over what has been approved by The Parliamentary Service.

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