Audrey Young

Political editor Audrey Young blogs from Parliament

Bill's most harmful effects will be unseen

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The most interesting amendment to the Electoral Finance Bill which emerged from the select committee today was one that was proposed but whipped away - the one that would have given Government advertising campaigns immunity.
National Deputy leader Bill English has taken the unusual step of releasing a draft amendment that would have given Government departments exemptions from the law.
It was dropped like a hotcake when, with a little assistance from the Herald, the committee realised how badly such an exemption would be construed publicly.
Pete Hodgson's assurances to the House last week that Government Departments would not get immunity was, we now know, based on the fact that it would be too politically dangerous, not that Labour hadn't thought of it.
The mega-spending campaigns promoting sustainability issues, Kiwisaver and SuperGold cards will still run and they will not be overtly political (no one said they ever were). But because non-Government organisations will have new restrictions placed on them from January 1, the effect of Government advertising will be relatively strengthened.
The definition of political advertising in the bill has been reined in somewhat but is still ambiguous enough for Government department campaigns to court legal challenge around technicalities when they start to roll out in election year. They could prove to be politically dangerous.
The Greens manoeuvred themselves well to get greater transparency to donations though there is something a little unnatural about having the Electoral Commission being the conduit of money from one private source to another.

There will be a lot of back-slapping by a slim majority in Parliament which convinces itself it has removed the worse excesses from the bill and there is no need to dump it.
They sky won't fall in. It won't affect people's pockets. Opponents of the bill will be painted as having hidden agendas. Apologists for the bill like Dr Peter Davis will convince themselves that the bill does no harm at all.
(It was interesting that Dr Davis repeated the piffle that Michael Cullen peddled last week that the Herald had run only one other campaign - against restrictions on tobacco advertising.
The Herald has campaigned on many issues including, in case it escaped their notice, a campaigning stance on paying back the unlawful campaign expenditure notched up by political parties in the 2005 campaign.)
And the bill will no doubt be welcomed in many quarters as the lists of changes are detailed and punitive caps are deemed less punitive.
But those changes do not alter the big picture.
Along with the advantage incumbent Governments will have, the advantages to incumbent MPs remain unchanged by the select committee, when seen in conjunction with the Continuation of the Validation For MPs to Spend-Up Large on Political Ads Bill due to get its third reading tomorrow.
As bad will be the likely chilling effect on participation in democracy produced by imposing a new set of rules around so-called third parties.
The most pernicious effects of the bill will be unseen and unmeasured.

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