Editorial: Pass the hat and reject the handout

The Labour Party has not learned very much from its public lashing last year over election spending. It seems still to regard its misuse of public finance as a disagreement over rules, which it hopes now to resolve once and for all with legislation permitting more state funding of political parties. Its plans, disclosed by the Herald this week, are those of a governing party looking to secure its future while it has the chance.

State funding of politics is close to the heart of all parties left of centre. They detest raising money, and believe business and private contributors naturally favour parties to the right. They probably exaggerate this favouritism, particularly in recent decades when the right has espoused free markets and competition more than many in business find comfortable. Firms tend to like competition for others more than for themselves.

Be that as it may, Labour wants less private money, particularly secretive money, in politics and believes the taxpayer should fund all parties' campaigns. Now halfway through its third term, the party is proposing that all parties receive amounts based on their vote at the last election, to spend with complete discretion in the year of the next election, and that nobody else may spend more than $60,000 supporting or attacking a party or its policies unless they are an organisation communicating with its members.

Thus teachers' unions, for example, could continue to take out full-page advertisements against competitive education policies, but individuals or groups with no other purpose than to support or oppose a party or a cause would put their favoured party at risk of breaching a spending cap.

Not everything in the proposal is objectionable. Better rules of disclosure of donors to political parties are clearly in the public interest. National's trusts are a rort we can do without. Politics is public business. That does not mean it must be state funded but its finances must be transparent.

State funding can have an effect as unhealthy as secret slush funds and more far-reaching. State funding tends to entrench existing parties. Under Labour's proposed formula, it and National would split the lion's share of campaign finance and smaller parties would be awarded scraps. That would be so even if a major party's support was to collapse between elections as Labour's did in 1987-90 and National's in 1999-2002.

Those two parties have dominated our politics for a lifetime, but they did not always do so, and might not satisfy their constituencies forever. MMP was supposed to introduce more diversity and fluidity to our politics, not reinforce the position of the previous duopoly.

With public funding of parties' parliamentary research units, electorate offices and campaign broadcasting, New Zealand is already on the slippery slope to state-sponsored politics. Our parties are no longer mass-membership organisations with roots deep in the community. They have become small coteries of political careerists and time-servers. Is this how we want to be governed?

Some political arrangements are too elemental to be decided by political parties. State funding of elections, disclosure of private contributions and restrictions on who may advertise in election campaigns are among them. Political parties are prone to believing their organisational interest is identical to the public interest. It is not. The public interest lies in ensuring elections can be contested as openly, intensely and freely as possible by people with their feet on the ground. It does no harm that they have to pass their hat around.

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