Audrey Young

Political editor Audrey Young blogs from Parliament

Labour spends up big with taxpayer's money

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They are at it again. Parliament is spending tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on political party advertising, thinly disguised as information on policy, this time on Labour's July 1 announcements.
We can't find out how much, as we can with a Government department, because Parliament is not subject to the Official Information Act. We will have to wait until Parliament Service delivers its annual report, in September or October. Even then there will be no breakdown of figures of what was spent on the July 1 campaign.
My colleague Derek Cheng tried to find out from the Prime Minister's office last Friday what taxpayer funded publicity from her leaders' budget was planned for July 1 - the start date for Kiwisaver, the 20 hours free childcare for three and four-year-olds, and cheaper doctors visits and medicine for 25 to 44-year-olds.
He was made to wait until well past deadline. Then he was given virtually nothing from the press secretary except to say there had been website advertising, and a direct mail-out (the letter from Helen Clark and "healthy, wealthy and wise" pamphlet many households received on Saturday).
The Prime Minister's office helpfully pointed out that Kiwsaver's public information campaign has a budget of $7.37 million over two years and is part of an $11 million communications programme - which raises the question of why Parliament has to fund another campaign for Labour.
I saw on Sunday at the launch of the July 1 policies in Te Atatu why the PM's office didn't want publicity over the publicity. The array of party literature on display - and being posted through mailboxes and on websites - equals anything you would see during an election campaign.


By any "common sense approach based on looking what a reasonable member of the public would think," (the Auditor General's own stated guiding measure) the advertising as a whole looks like electioneering.
But surely, you might think, that is what the Auditor General ruled to be unlawful in his report last year and why parties have had to repay the money to Treasury. Yes, but that was then. Parliament has since passed special legislation that not only covered their butts for the previous unlawful spending but changed the rules for future spending.
The ban on using Parliament's money for "electioneering" does not apply only during the three months before an election, as some parties might think, but for the whole term. If the special law had not been passed, there would a case to argue that what is going on now is unlawful.
But the fact is that this binge of spending is lawful, even if it appears to be blatant electioneering. The validating legislation changed the definition of "electioneering" to the end of 2007. The upshot is that anything that does not explicitly seek support for a party or person is lawful.
It didn't used to be last year, but it is now, at least until the end of this year.
By tightening the definition of "electioneering" Parliament has relaxed its spending rules.
This completely contradicts the Auditor General and Solicitor General's view that literature did not have to explicitly canvas support to be deemed electioneering. But it gave Parliament breathing space to consider its own rules.
Labour is making the most of it.

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