Herald on state funding

The NZ Herald editorial:

Until the Labour Government came to grief with its Electoral Finance Act, now repealed, many voters might not have realised how strictly elections were previously controlled in the interests of financial equality. …

The previous code, now back in force, limits the amount parties and candidates can spend on campaigns and particularly restricts parties’ access to radio and television. They are given a set amount of “free” time for opening and closing their campaigns and an allocation of public money for broadcast commercials. Parties are not permitted to use money they have raised themselves to buy more air time even if the spending would be within overall campaign limits.

Which is an antiquated restriction inherited from the days when the broadcast medium was all powerful. It is very very unfair that a party can not spend more money on broadcast ads than their allocation by the Electoral Commission.

National is part-way through a promised review of the law and has just published some options for public comment. It would retain public funding for party advertising either under present rules or with no restriction on the type of media in which the money can be spent and no limit on the broadcast time a party can buy from its own funds, provided it is within overall campaign limits.

And the latter option is preferable to the former.

A third option would allow parties to spend their public allocation for any election purpose, not necessarily campaign advertising. From there it would be a short step to full public funding of election campaigns. Once the taxpayers’ contribution ceased to be for a defined purpose, parties would soon press for public funds for all purposes.

I agree. I oppose that option.

If the review was being conducted independently of political parties we might be presented with another option: the end of this state-funding-by-stealth. There is no particular reason that taxpayers should have had to pay for the promotion of parties on television. It is nonsensical that even fringe campaigns can get on air by making an application on time. Let all contenders prove their worth by raising voluntary finance. And let them spend it where they think best.

I proposed a compromise. Have the funding available only to non-parliamentary parties, in recognition of the fact that parliamentary parties have a huge advantage. They get publicity over the whole three year cycle, and parliamentary resources such as MPs, staff and funding.

The previous Government’s vexed issue of “third party” campaigns – publicity for or against a party or on an issue that works to a party’s advantage or disadvantage – has not been resolved by the review so far. National, too, wants to regulate “parallel campaigns” as it calls them, but wants to make their spending rules simpler than those Labour laid down and “weighted in favour of freedom of speech”.

That is not quite correct. National has proposed two mutually exclusive options. One is for regulation and one is for the status quo of basically transparency only. I do not believe a case has been made that you need to regulate beyond transparency, and hope Cabinet will finally conclude to recommend no change.

And parallel campaigns should be allowed to broadcast during election periods.

I agree.

The red tape of electoral finance was hopelessly tangled even before Helen Clark got her hands on it. National is at least proceeding cautiously; the proposals offered for discussion until the end of the month are a response to comments on a paper issued in May. Public views will be invited again next year when legislation appears. Constitutional steps should be taken this way. It is for all of us now to have our say.

Indeed the existing law was far from perfect. As the Herald says, make sure you submit and have your say.

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