Electoral bill 'backward step' - Law Society

By Claire Trevett

The Law Society has added its voice to calls for the Electoral Finance Bill to be completely thrown out.

The society's president, John Marshall, gave its submission to the justice and electoral select committee yesterday, saying the bill was "a backward step and irredeemable," and meant ordinary citizens could unwittingly break the law simply by taking part in debates on election issues.

Mr Marshall said it was "very rare" for the Law Society to come to the view that a bill should not proceed, but this was "so complex, vague and uncertain as to make participation in out parliamentary democracy an arduous and perhaps even legally dangerous undertaking for ordinary New Zealanders."

The Society gave the committee a series of case studies to show the effects the extra rules would have on both organisations and ordinary people doing simple election activities, such as agreeing to put a friend's billboard on farmland.

The society's calls echo those of other groups, including the Human Rights Commission, which said the bill was a "dramatic assault" on basic human freedoms.

The bill aims to make political funding and third party campaigns more transparent, by requiring clear information on who is behind "election advertisements," setting a $60,000 spending limit for third party campaigns in an election year, and requiring more disclosure of donations.

Mr Marshall said the Society supported the intent of the bill but the Government should start afresh and seek a wider mandate for the changes - a swipe at the Government for its lack of consultation with other political parties and the public prior to introducing the bill.

"Legislation such as this, which goes to the heart of out democratic system of government, should be broadly accepted both within Parliament and in the wider community. The controversy surrounding this bill shows it does not have that broad acceptance."

National deputy leader Bill English said the society's submission was a clear indictment of the Government's handling of it.

"Quite a different bill could emerge from the select committee process and the public will not have any chance to comment on what might be a very different set of proposals."

Other organisations gave a mixed review to the bill. While most supported its aims, they argued its restrictions on debate were too draconian.

Greenpeace adviser Geoff Keey said Greenpeace activities would effectively grind to a halt and it would be unable to debate issues inextricably linked with politics, such as climate change.

Others making submissions included the Press Council, which said the bill imposed on freedom of expression and could make even press releases contrary to the law.

The Council of Trade Unions and the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union said third parties should be able to campaign on the issues that were relevant to them in an election year. The definition of third-party advertising was too broad and should be restricted to advertising aimed at procuring a vote for a candidate or party, or for a change or retention of Government.

The select committee is due to be report back early next year.

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