About the Author

Avatar photo

Bernard Robertson

Regulating Freedom of Speech

Print Friendly and PDF
Posted on

The so-called Electoral Finance Bill is really about participation in election activity by people who are not professional politicians. It says that politics is for politicians and that you and I, who are not self-promoting climbers of the greasy pole, have no business interfering. The policy agenda should be determined by the political parties and not by the public and so should the way those policies are marketed.

The Bill will control election advertising. Well that is fine isn’t it? Anyone who engages in election advertising must know what they are doing and will find out the rules. Well, it is not that simple. Can you define “election advertising”? Whatever definition we choose, people will work out how to get round it. It would be too simple, for example, to say that it is election advertising if it mentions a party or candidate. People would then pay for advertisements that only tackled policies without naming parties.

So we have a very wide definition. Election advertising includes anything that takes a position on a proposition with which one or more candidates or parties are associated. Think about this carefully. It means that if you in your private or work capacity send letters to clients, or to parishioners or to the parents of the children at your school and mention that the remaining tariffs adversely affect your business, or that some form of regulation imposes a burden for no benefit, or encouraging people to think when voting about the plight of the homeless, or the need for money to spent on education, then you will be engaging in election advertising. In fact, it is impossible to give a complete list of subjects that will be covered without a complete list of candidates and what they are campaigning on. There is probably a candidate in some electorate somewhere who believes that we need to do something about alien abductions.

If you wish to deliver a leaflet or send out a letter like that then you will have to register as a “third party” unless you can prove that you spent less than $500 between 1 January 2008 and the election date. (And don’t ask me how the accounting will be done, how overheads will be apportioned and so on.) So in order to exercise your right to free speech on political issues during election year you will have to register and then expose yourself to having to produce sets of accounts, having to have them audited and being investigated. So if you want to exercise a right supposedly guaranteed by the Bill of Rights Act, you have to register with the state.

Then you will be subject to a spending limit of $60,000. That may sound like a fair bit, but consider the position of think tanks like the New Zealand Institute, the Council for Socially Responsible Business, the Business Roundtable, or the Maxim Institute and many centres and institutes at universities. These bodies put out major papers and books which they distribute to mailing lists. These papers provide in depth and independent analysis of policies which politicians offer us only sound-bites on. A decent research paper, once one has paid the author, had it proofed, professionally edited, printed, bound and distributed, is not going to cost much less than $60,000.

So all these bodies which provide us with proper research into policy proposals, will be limited to one decent research paper in the year and will then be effectively disabled from offering any comment on issues of the moment.

Stories in newspapers and commercially sold books will be exempt. But what is a newspaper? Many are distributed free. It is easy to set up something which looks like a newspaper but which is really a campaigning device. Once that has been done once or twice we will be into the government deciding what is and what is not an exempt newspaper and controls on speech will be complete.

Funnily enough, there will be an exemption for trade unions (it won’t mean anything to any other incorporated body) communicating with their members.

This Bill cannot be salvaged by detailed amendment. The requirement to register in order to exercise your right to freedom of speech is fundamentally wrong and without the requirement to register none of the rest of the scheme will work. This Bill itself demonstrates that whatever rules are made, someone will find ways of working round them and then greater controls will be introduced.

The whole concept of limits on election spending but not on donation of time of course favours parties supported by those with low opportunity costs, beneficiaries, public servants, teachers and so on. Those who are too busy creating wealth and employment would prefer to give money.

So this Bill is fundamentally wrong and has a good measure of bias thrown in. The parties that support it should be punished on election day.