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David Farrar

An Abuse of Power

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The Electoral Finance Bill is quite simply an unacceptable attack on the human rights of New Zealanders. This is not simply my view, but also the views of the Law Society and the Human Rights Commission. Even with the Select Committee modifications, they oppose the Bill being passed into law.

The Attorney-General, Michael Cullen, said that it does not breach the Bill of Rights – a statement which is being challenged in court. However to prevent the court from making a decision before the bill is passed into law, the Government and its allies on the Select Committee voted to withhold the true report back date from the Court.

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.

If someone wants to do a video parody of a politician and publish it on You Tube, they will not be breaking the law unless they include their name and address as part of the video.

New Zealand has a fine history of lobby groups and organizations protesting against decisions which they think are wrong and unfair. Now any group which spends more than $250 a week (12,000 in election year) campaigning against a government policy has to register with the Government if their campaign suggests people’s vote should be affected by this policy.

And if a group wants to spend more than $2,500 a week ($120,000 in election year) opposing (or supporting) a policy they consider wrong, they can not do so if it may affect how people vote.

This $120,000 cap is less than 2.5% of the $5,000,000 a party can spend on advertising for the party and electorate vote (a Party can spend $2.4 million on the party vote, $1.4 million on the electorate vote and they receive $1.2 million from the Electoral Commission for broadcasting). Even worse the Electoral Finance Bill is going to exempt the parliamentary parties from having their spending count as advertising, so obvious electioneering activities such as pledge cards and bus shelter advertisements will not even be counted towards a party’s limit.

A companion Appropriations Bill means parties such as Labour will be able to get the taxpayer to pay for election advertisements such as their pledge card, and this Bill will mean they won’t even count as part of their limit. It is a degree of political hypocrisy without recent comparison.

It isn’t just parties in Parliament who will do well with this law, but also individual MPs. The Electoral Finance Bill will make it very very difficult for an MP to lose their electorate seat.

In previous elections, challengers to MPs could spend money before the final 90 day period building up their profile. The incumbent MP has a huge advantage with profile as they are in the paper every day and also have a $65,000 annual budget which they can and do spend on direct mail and advertising.

However challengers are now restricted to just $20,000, including GST, over the entire election year. And even worse, the incumbent MPs have over-turned the Auditor-General’s decision that they can’t electioneer in the last 90 days with their $65,000 budget. An incumbent MP can now write to every voter in the electorate talking about what they have achieved for the electorate. They can now do this the week of the election and have the taxpayer pay for it, and not count as part of their $20,000 limit.

Even the media are not exempt from the restrictions on critcising the Government. The Minister of Justice has said that if a newspaper wishes to endorse a party, it can not do so unless it registers as a third party. The new law will restrict the traditional media exemption so that it only applies if material is written “solely for the purpose of informing, enlightening, or entertaining readers”. The use of the word “solely” means that media who launch campaigns (such as the NZ Herald campaign against the Electoral Finance Bill) may end up breaking the law and be prosecuted.

In summary this bill will discourage and even intimidate ordinary citizens, lobby groups and even the media from criticizing political parties and MPs, while at the same time it will exempt parliamentary spending from electoral law so that taxpayer funds can once again be spent in the weeks before an election on making the same parties and MPs look good.

It is almost impossible to conceive of a greater hypocrisy, and a greater abuse of arguably New Zealand’s most important constitutional law – just to help a tired third term Government lagging in the polls, to get a fourth term.