Consensus kills most meaningful electoral finance reform

Simon Power has announced the Government’s electoral finance reform package:

The Government has today announced its reform package for electoral finance laws.

Justice Minister Simon Power says the decisions are the result of a thorough process.

“The package comes after extended consultation with all parliamentary parties and the public.

“As a result, Cabinet has decided to progress reforms only where there is broad public and political support.

“If we are to have a system which is fair, workable, enduring, and in place before the 2011 election, broad consensus is essential.”

Sadly, this means that many good reforms are not occurring. I will detail these below. There are some useful changes, but I am frustrated that some really stupid parts of the law are remaining.

However I have great sympathy for the need to have broad support for the electoral law, so that changes to electoral law do not become the ultimate prize of the victor, trying to skew the playing field to keep them in power (as Labour did with the Electoral Finance Act).

Effectively Simon Power (and Cabinet) has given Labour a veto over major reforms. I don’t like the outcomes this has led to, but do think it is generally the right thing to do, to not force changes through which don’t have widespread support.

It is the polar opposite of what Labour, the Greens and NZ First did with the Electoral Finance Act.

The Cabinet paper is here. Major aspects are:

  1. Parallel campaigners who spend more than $12,000 must register with the Electoral Commission, but there is no spending limits of such campaigners.
  2. Spending limits for parties and candidates to be inflation adjusted for future elections, but no increase to compensate for the lack of such adjustments since 1993.
  3. The definition of an election advertisement will exempt personal political opinions on the Internet
  4. One does not have to use your home address on election advertisements
  5. The Electoral Commission can give advisory opinions on the legality of proposed advertisements
  6. A new requirement that parties disclose all their income from donations in bands, including those below the disclosure threshold
  7. Include an associated persons test to make it harder to do what NZ First did, and not disclose donations as they were from seperate companies, even though they had the same owner.
  8. No change to the regulated period or the broadcasting regime.
  9. A proposal to align parliamentary and electoral advertising rules

My thoughts on the changes are as follows:

  1. A pretty major win with no limit for parallel campaigners. It is not that I want third parties spending huge amounts of money for or against a party (the unions tend to be the biggest spenders) but that it is wrong for MPs to legislate to restrict the amount of criticism that can be advertised against them. Also the public are quite capable of forming their own views about very expensive campaigns.
  2. The lack of any change to the broadcasting regime is hugely disappointing. It is quite simply wrong that parties can not purchase their own advertising on radio or television, and also that effetively the major parties get a higher overall spending limit than smaller parties.  I also think it is wrong that current parties in Parliament get so much of the broadcasting allocation. Labour and the Greens refused to back change here, so the Government did not proceed.
  3. I am rather pleased with the decision to have further transparency with donations, by having disclosure in bands of all income. I proposed this at both stages of the review as it will give the public a more accurate picture of a party’s funding. It will be interesting to see under the OIA who else, if anyone, proposed this.
  4. The associated persons test for donations is very much needed to prevent what NZ First did.
  5. The lack of an increase to party and (especially) candidate spending limits is regrettable as they are too low, and prevent candidates from being able to do even basic communications such as direct mail. Even the Green Party supported retrospective inflation adjustments back to 1993, but Labour did not support this, so it did not proceed.
  6. While it is good the length of the regulated period has not increased from three months, I am astonished they did not go for a fixed start date of 1 August to avoid the current problem of candidates not knowing when the regulated period starts until they are halfway through it. I will be interested to discover under the OIA why this change did not occur. As far as I can tell from the Cabinet paper it may have been technical problems with snap elections.
  7. Allowing the Electoral Commission to issue advisory opinions on advertisements is very welcome. It should be difficult to breach the law.
  8. Also very sensible to allow a non-home address on advertisements so long as one can still contact the identified promoter.
  9. There is a proposal that Parliament ban use of parliamentary funds, during the regulated period, on any publicity material that can be deemed electioneering under the Electoral Act. I strongly support this and proposed such an action. Outside the regulated period only material which explicitly calls for votes (or members or money) is banned, but during the regulated period anything which even appears to encourage support for a party or candidate will not be able to be funded by the taxpayers.

I back the change package as announced, and will submit on them. My criticism is about the changes not made. Hopefully over time a consensus can be gained to do further reform.

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