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Dr Muriel Newman

Compromising Democracy

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The Electoral Finance Bill, which seeks to impose complex restrictions on how people can engage in the democratic process during election year, was reported back from the Justice and Electoral Select Committee last week.

The Bill has been designed by Labour and its support parties to ensure that they win the next election. The Labour Party is so desperate to preserve political power that they are quite prepared to compromise democracy in New Zealand for political expediency.

The amended bill has retained three of its worst anti-democratic features by attempting to silence critics, crush opposition funding, and trash New Zealand’s constitutional electoral law reform traditions.

Firstly, the regulated period, which was extended from three months before an election to the whole of election year, has been retained. Secondly, draconian restricting on anonymous donations and third party spending have been introduced, while government departments remain free to use taxpayers’ money to promote Labour Party policy. Thirdly, New Zealand’s proud tradition of electoral law reform, which has always involved cross-party consensus and the widest possible public consultation, has been hijacked.

The New Zealand Herald has boldly claimed that the Bill remains a “constitutional outrage”: “The bill is a drastic alteration of electoral law, going to the heart of our freedoms and democracy. It is being rushed and reeks of partisan opportunism. It should go no further”.

The Electoral Commission, whose job is to advise on the detail of electoral law, has complained that the Bill as reported back is confusing and that some parts will be almost impossible to interpret.

The President of the Law Society has stated that the Bill is far too complex, contains serious restrictions on the freedom of speech, and should be scrapped.

Professor Bill Hodge from Auckland University has expressed has concerns that “the biggest spender and the biggest chequebook in the country remains the advertising tool of the current labour Government, while the opposition gets shut down. Government advertising is unlimited while those who protest are said to be exercising chequebook democracy.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Labour has also passed two other self-serving election funding laws aimed at progressing its goal of introducing taxpayer-funded elections by stealth: the first was the legislation passed last year to retrospectively validate their illegal $800,000 pledge card spending and the second, the Appropriations Bill passed last week making it legal for Parliamentary parties to use taxpayers’ funding for electioneering purposes.

Of all of the restrictions being imposed by the Electoral Finance Bill, the most dangerous is Labour’s plan to restrict the freedom of speech of all citizens for the whole of election year. The Human Rights Commission has predicted that the effects of the Bill would be “chilling”. With the imposition of complicated state controls, an increase in the maximum fines from $40,000 to $100,000 and the ultimate penalty for ‘getting it wrong’ increasing from one to two years’ imprisonment, many individuals and groups who would normally engage actively in the political process will be intimidated into silence, fearful of inadvertently breaking the law.

David Farrar, this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, has been an outspoken critic of the Bill since its inception. As a trustee of the Freedom of Speech Coalition set up to “Kill the Bill”, he holds grave concerns about its widespread impact:

“The Electoral Finance Bill will affect the rights of New Zealanders to participate in the political process, and especially to criticise politicians in many ways. If you express an opinion for or against any political party, or any MP seeking re-election, then this is now classified as an election advertisement and regulated. And this does not just apply to the period immediately before an election, but for all of election year. If passed, this means that political advocacy will be regarded as election advertising for 30% of your life. You may think that the law only applies to you, if you spend lots of money on advertisements. This is not correct. The Bill defines publishing an advertisement as bringing to the notice of the public by any manner. This may be speaking in a public meeting, taking part in a protest march, posting your views on a party or MP into a political newsgroup on the Internet, or even an e-mail”. For more details read David’s article “An Abuse of Power”.

This attack on the freedom of speech by the parties of government is extremely serious. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind and in any form”. If Labour, the Greens, NZ First, the Progressives and United, are successful in passing this Bill, New Zealand will be regulated by the most restrictive and draconian electoral law legislation in the Western World.

It is this attack on our freedom of speech that has motivated John Boscawen to mount a nationwide campaign against the Electoral Finance Bill. John responded to my call to NZCPR readers to put in a submission on the Bill, and having realised how dangerous it is, he is determined to lead a citizens’ fight to defeat the Bill.

His recent Queen Street protest march attracted over 2,000 people. Many were marching for the first time. The Prime Minister dismissed the march as hardly being indicative of a ‘groundswell’. That has spurred John to organise a second march: “If you are not happy with 2,000 protesters, Prime Minister, we’ll see if we can find you some more!”

John Boscawen believes that the public has the power to stop the Bill. Apart from the marches, if everyone who values free speech contacts the leaders of the parties supporting the Bill – and all of their MPs – asking them to withdraw the Bill, then John believes the force of public opinion will cause them to reconsider. With Parliament in recess this week, there is plenty of time for everyone concerned to email MPs about this Bill – the email addresses of all MPs can be found on the NZCPR’s Parliament page.

John Third is a New Zealand consultant who has spent much of the year working in Cambodia. He was deeply moved by the freedom marches and has written an article for our NZCPR Soapbox Series questioning the government’s attack on our democratic rights: “Cambodia today is struggling to overcome the horrendous effects of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge … up to 3 million of a 5 million population were killed. This leads a person to ponder just how it was possible for a deranged lunatic like Pol Pot to get away with this. How in a country in a modern age can the majority be cowed to such an extent to allow such atrocities to happen? Reading the history this occurred bit by bit: First, the Khmer Rouge took control of the media, censoring what could be said, and who had access to the media. Secondly, they passed laws to immunise themselves from prosecution, criticism, and any form of public scrutiny. Thirdly, they used state funded propaganda to misinform …”

In his article “Crossing the Line” John reflects on the importance of constitutional constraints on our own politicians and asks, “When does a government actually cross the line from being a servant of the people to being the master of the people. How do we identify that important step? Is it signing other people’s paintings and not being charged? Is it speeding in motorcades and transferring the blame to staff? Is it taking taxpayer funds to fund its own propaganda, while denying the right of others to criticise?”…

Has Helen Clark crossed that line with the Electoral Finance Bill?

The answer has to be an unequivocal “Yes”. She has shown that she is prepared to sacrifice everything that is good about democracy to advance her own political objectives. If she and her partners of convenience prevail in passing this Electoral Finance Bill into law, democracy in New Zealand will indeed be fatally compromised – just as it has been in those despotic regimes where the state has become the master over its citizens.

The poll this week asks: Do you believe there is justification for introducing the Electoral Finance Bill?