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Richard Prebble

Taxpayer Funding Makes us less Democratic

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Now after the Auditor –General has concluded that much of Labour’s election spending was an illegal use of taxpayer’s funds, the government’s solution is to decide that the taxpayer must fund political parties.

Politicians can’t help but try to fiddle the rules by which they are elected. What we know is that Labour has secret proposals that are being bargained with its ally political parties. Parties opposed to the government are not being informed and we the public are being kept in the dark.

New Zealand already has massive taxpayer subsidies. Funding that has been struck down as anti democratic by the courts in Canada , Australia and the USA.

Taxpayer subsidies have made elections in New Zealand less democratic and the new proposals will tilt the field even more.

New Zealand MPs have unlimited free travel, flying rental cars, taxis and for ministers, LTD ministerial cars. (I have seen a ministerial car bill of over $40,000 a year).

There are the unlimited telephone calls, faxes and emails. It is not unusual for an MP to spend over $10,000 just on the cell phone. The free phones have been used to canvass, conduct polls and electioneer. Every MP has a secretary and electoral agents with office accommodation. Then there is the free postage.

Most parliamentary democracies do not allow MPs to use their free travel, post or phones during an election. Not in New Zealand.

The reason that ACT remains the only new party with no sitting MPs to break into parliament is that the taxpayer-funded parties have such a huge advantage.

The handicap is greater than just funding. Political parties can not buy TV or radio time. The allocation is based on the last election, an impossible hurdle for a new party. The time allocated to the third parties is so small they simply can not compete. It is why despite MMP it is still a two party club.

But the rules are even more unfair. For some reason contributions of people’s time does not count. This means that a big trade union like the Engineers union can, and it does, allocate an organiser full time with a car, cell phone and office support, into marginal electorates, without it counting against the electoral election limit. In 1975 the carpenters union gave me an organiser full time for a month so I was able to legally outspend my National opponent and win by just 284 votes.

There are issues that are worth debating about campaign expenditure, but Labour and its allies are not seeking more democracy but electoral advantage.

One of Labor’s proposals is to force donors to declare all donations. No one has asked why? Voters are entitled to the secrecy of the ballot then why not for donations? Are we not just as entitled to know how judges, senior civil servants, TV anchor men, editors  and reporters vote? Such people have a great influence on elections.

We intrinsically realise the importance to a free society of allowing citizens to keep their politics private. Then why are we entitled to know how our neighbour spends his money?

Labour believes that by forcing the publication of donations then most of ACT’s and National’s donors will be appalled at the thought of publicity and decide not to give. This could be true.

Already the vast majority of companies do not give. Labour has included a ban on overseas donations, despite the fact that Labour’s biggest donor, Owen Glen, lives overseas. The reality is I know of no overseas firm that gives to election campaigning.

The ban on non party advertising is even less defensible. The idea that only the political parties can canvass for support is fundamentally undemocratic. Major ideas have come from outside the political parties. Often these radical ideas are opposed by all the professional politicians. Conservation did not start with the Greens. Campaigns like “Save Manapouri” were opposed by all the parties. Under Labour’s proposed legislation it will be illegal to campaign for an idea like Save Manapouri unless you register with the government and spend a sum so small it can not influence the outcome.

It smacks of the sort of reason given for removing Jews from public life to ban Exclusive Brethren, who won’t join parties, from participating in elections.

It is my own view that we would be better off with fewer restrictions rather than more and less taxpayer funding. Free speech is essential to democracy. It follows parties, companies, unions, churches and individuals should all be able to participate in elections and buy advertising on TV.

The answer to taxpayer funding is to require transparent accountability. Each MP should have to say how he or she spent their taxpayer money. We should know the cost of each MP’s air travel, phone calls and postage. My own guess is that expenditure would fall significantly if MPs thought they would have to explain why they took that trip.

When professional politicians no longer need to raise money and have supporters, they become further out of touch. We shield them from “the boy who says the king has no clothes” by banning all but parties from involvement in elections. When the courts start fining people $10,000 just for having an opinion about who should be our government and expressing it, we are no longer a free country. It is only a small step then to say that an Internet column like this should be banned during an election.