Revamp of finance bill removes 'unintended consequences'

The controversial Electoral Finance Bill is to be changed to remove some "unintended consequences" which have led to claims it is undemocratic.

However, critics say the amendments announced today by Parliament's justice and electoral select committee do not go far enough and National continues to oppose it.

The Herald launched a campaign last week calling for the proposed law to be scrapped.

The bill puts a cap on the amount third parties can spend during an election campaign and restricts what they can say.

It was drafted in response to the Exclusive Brethren's well-funded campaign against Labour and the Greens during the last election.

The committee said the Brethren's campaign had demonstrated "a critical and urgent need" to reform election laws.

"Those who wish to unfairly influence the next election by spending millions of dollars on advertising that pushes their agenda will find that this bill restricts their ability to do so," it said.

However, it recognised there were "some unintended consequences" in the bill as it was originally drafted, and it has changed the definition of election advertising which it considered was too broad.

It has increased the amount that third parties - organisations outside Parliament - can spend from the original $60,000 to $120,000.

It has retained a section of the bill most strongly opposed by National, which extends the official period of a campaign from three months before an election to the whole year in which an election takes place.

That means funding limits on political parties will apply for the whole year, not just three months, and they will not be able to get round spending limits by starting their campaigns early.

National's deputy leader, Bill English, said his party would still repeal the bill if it won the next election.

"It is still an attack on democracy despite minor changes," Mr English said in a statement issued soon after the committee released its report on the bill.

"This is just another manifestation of control freakery from a government that treats the public as if they are stupid."

Mr English said the committee had altered "some of the most ludicrous and untenable provisions" but the vast majority of clauses were unchanged.

"Labour is working hard to silence its critics in election year," he said.

"If this draconian bill is allowed to pass, free speech will be heavily regulated for one year in every three. Labour is sacrificing all our political freedoms to save its own skin."

The National Party said in its minority report that the select committee process had been rushed and procedural corners had been cut.

"Many witnesses did not receive a fair hearing," National said.

"Officials from the Ministry of Justice and the Parliamentary Counsel Office did not have adequate time to advise on policy and draft legislation."

The Green Party said the regime for anonymous donations was still too loose, and the Act Party said it strongly opposed the bill because it restricted freedom of speech.

The Government has numbers in Parliament to pass the bill, and its second reading is expected on Thursday.

Earlier today, before the committee had released its report, Prime Minister Helen Clark said the bill had been "vastly improved" by the committee.

She said some people would continue to oppose it for political reasons.

- NZPA, NZ HERALD STAFF

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