John Roughan: Public debate needs more private money, not less

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When Helen Clark led Labour to power three elections ago I foolishly wagered a bottle of wine they would last just one term.

The bet immediately felt unfair and I tried to cancel it. The taker was too young to have seen how quickly this country could spit out left-leaning governments.

Three years later it was she who waived the bet.

Clark, Anderton and company turned out to be more moderate and cautious than I'd expected from watching them glower in Parliament when the fourth Labour Government was methodically undoing the historic work of the first.

I should have guessed they had learned something from the fate of the second and third.

Most of Clark's Cabinet would have been students like me when Norman Kirk was elected. The shock of 1975 would be with them still.

They were students of politics and they learned. We are not leftish people. We may have been raised on social security, and susceptible to the deception that benefits are entitlements, but most of us do not share the dark suspicion of wealth that lurks in the Labour soul.

Clark's Government has survived this long by keeping its demons firmly in check.

There have been times in the past seven years I really believed she had slain them.

She has been comfortable governing the economy reformed by those she opposed, reaping the harvest in surplus tax and unbroken growth, promising no more unpopular surprises, twice rewarded with re-election.

But the last election was too close for her comfort and she blames seven rich, religious, moral conservatives. Three of her demons in each one.

She means to prevent it happening again. The Electoral Finance Bill is the Exclusive Brethren bill.

As usual when governments legislate with a vengeance, the cure threatens to be much worse than the disease.

The bill is coming back from a select committee next week and will make some concessions to the barrage of criticism it has deserved. But it will retain its aim to restrict the amount of money any organisation can spend to promote a concern in election year.

The crucial element is its definition of "election advertisement". As it stands, the definition catches virtually anything that could reflect adversely or favourably on a party or candidate in the election.

Current law forbids anybody publishing material, independently of a party, that expressly urges people to vote, or not vote, for a particular party or individual.

The bill aims to limit independent spending on anything that encourages votes for or against a "type of party or type of candidate described by references to views, positions or policies ... whether or not the name of the party or candidate is stated".

And further, any material, "taking a position on a proposition with which one or more parties or one or more candidates is associated".

It is outrageous and the control will apply not for the few weeks of an election campaign but from the beginning of an election year. No more Tui billboards for nine months.

"The National Party benefits enormously from big money in New Zealand politics," she said on Monday in response to the Herald's front page editorial on Monday.

No doubt National does benefit more than others but it has not won an election for a while. Money is not magic; it is only as effective as the popular resonance of the message and the credibility of the messenger and it has an in-built limit. To spend too much, conspicuously or anonymously, is counter-productive.

Money, Labour forgets, is not the only political advantage. Left-leaning governments enjoy a much easier ride from interest groups in the state sector, authoritative academics and generally from the media.

National's view of the public interest is usually shared by chambers of commerce and employer associations when they dare put their heads above the political parapet. Normally they have to pay to publicise their points of view at any length because journalism suspects they are self-serving.

State sector professionals and academics, on the other hand, are interviewed at length about their ideas, problems and concerns because their motives are trusted.

Students of politics, and all social sciences, ascribe far too much power to wealth, business and advertising because they are not familiar with it, and because they dare not otherwise explain why the left fails.

It is more palatable to blame the evil, selfish cunning of capitalism than the limited appeal of their own miserable, resentful, repressive social outlook.

We need more private money in public debate, not less. Not enough interested citizens like the seven foolish Brethren participate in elections before voting day. Their folly was to try to hide when they did so.

Disclosure is the only legitimate requirement. Otherwise, let anyone donate what they want, spend what they will, to speak to us. And credit us with the intelligence to hear it.

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