Electoral Finance Bill: In their own words

By Audrey Young

Few pieces of legislation have generated as much political heat as the Electoral Finance Bill. The bill, which limits the amount that outside parties can spend and caps anonymous political donantions, has sparked fierce exchanges inside Parliament and noisy public protests outside. The Weekend Herald invited eight party figures to explain their position on the bill.

Annette King, Justice Minister

As an MP and a private citizen, I have been involved in political debate in this country for most of my adult life.

In all of that time I have been able to point to scandals overseas involving secret donations and politicians selling policy promises, and to say: I'm glad that doesn't happen in New Zealand.

In 2005 such level of comfort was destroyed.

In the last gasps of the election campaign and in the months that followed, it became clear that the National Party had laundered over 90 per cent of their donations through secret trusts, assisted the Exclusive Brethren with a $1.2 million campaign that exploited loopholes in electoral law, and spent millions upon millions in an attempt to buy the 2005 election.

The Electoral Finance Bill will safeguard our electoral system from such abuses.

It has been attacked by the very few New Zealanders who are able to pour thousands of dollars into electioneering campaigns to buy influence in government.

It will not affect the ability of everyday New Zealanders to participate in our democracy. Such claims are nothing but self-serving nonsense.

This bill is about making sure election campaigns are a contest of ideas, not a battle of bank accounts.

John Key, National Leader

National opposes this self-serving and draconian bill because it is an assault on democracy and free speech in election year.

The legislation widens the regulated election period to an outrageous one year in three, so when New Zealanders wake up on January 1 they will be regulated by election campaign rules. It treats New Zealanders as if they are stupid and seeks to shut down opposing opinion in election year.

It imposes a shambolic set of rules that nobody, not even Government ministers, the Prime Minister, nor the agency charged with administering it understands. It imposes a ridiculous and unworkable third-party regime on anyone who isn't an MP. And it lets Labour spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars through government department advertising in election year to promote Labour policies and buy the election.

In summary, it screws the scrum in Labour's favour in election year because it is all about shutting down dissent and getting Labour re-elected.

Labour does not care that our ability to speak freely and engage in political debate is the casualty.

The bill is an anti-democratic travesty that attacks the rights of ordinary New Zealanders, because their rights no longer count under a Government desperate to win another term. National will axe this legislation at the first opportunity.

Winston Peters, NZ First Leader

Government should be of the people, by the people, for the people, according to Abraham Lincoln, and we agree. Government should not go to the highest bidder.

The Herald is an overseas-owned newspaper trying to impose foreign values on our democracy. Its campaign has been blatantly partisan, dishonest and duplicitous. New Zealanders will never knowingly stand by and allow foreigners to control our democracy, and yet the Herald has never once declared its status in its disingenuous media blitzkrieg over the Electoral Finance Bill.

If the Herald was sincere, it would shed the pretence and say it supports a small clique of secret money financiers being free to buy power in 2008. That is the effect of not passing the bill. Indeed, few of the bill's opponents have been honest enough to say they want the unfettered capacity to spend huge sums of money supporting the types of campaigns we see abroad. New Zealand First's policies have not been bought by foreign interests. We support this bill because it will stop foreign interests and secret money distorting our democracy. Freedom of speech and dissent is guaranteed in the bill - but not the million dollar-plus electoral abuses of 2005.

This is a classic case of a small clique of secret money versus ordinary New Zealanders. We - like the National Party used to be when it was led by Holyoake- are on the side of the people.

Russel Norman, Greens Co-Leader

The Electoral Finance Bill does not stop anyone saying anything, anytime. EFB places no restrictions on press. EFB places no restrictions on paid issue advertising. EFB only caps advertising spending if trying to persuade people to vote for or against a party cap at $120,000. Repeat, EFB only caps electioneering spending. EFB caps party advertising spending at $2.4 million. National responsible for EFB. National evaded party spending cap by using Exclusive Brethren for parallel vote National anti-Green campaign. Showed loophole in existing law. If don't close loophole, parallel groups can spend unlimited millions in party vote campaigning. Result - politicians owned by those who funded their campaign, not by voters. That's why need cap on election spending by parties and other groups. See USA for evidence - best elections money can buy. Human Rights Commission agreed with Greens' changes to protect freedom of speech.

Rallies against EFB organised by Business Roundtable member. BRT members made secret donations to National via secret trusts. See Hollow Men by Nicky Hager. National opposed Green idea of citizens assembly to decide campaign finance rules. Don't be duped.

* Dr Norman says the 200-word restriction limited the style of his contribution.

Pita Sharples, Maori Party Co-Leader

Accountability, transparency and integrity are central to the trust and confidence te iwi Maori place in others. It is about walking the talk. Election rules should enhance democratic political participation.

In a context where money talks, we came to the bill aware that Aotearoa experiences an uneven distribution of wealth. While some businesses, organisations and individuals are accumulating considerable wealth, others suffer the injustice of poverty. We believe it is appropriate for Parliament to pass laws to prevent the corrupt and disproportionate influence of a very rich minority, and of any other political stakeholders and lobbyists from buying or funding an undue influence on elections. Such actions suppress the rangatiratanga of all other voters.

But this bill doesn't do it. It doesn't open up the secret trusts. Lawyers' accounts can still become a hideaway for lots of $9999 donations to be burrowed away without disclosure.

Election finance laws must not be designed and determined by politicians and parties in isolation of the people. The practice of kotahitanga encourages all people to have their say and to reach consensus. We supported the proposal of a Citizens' Assembly to enable the community to be decision-makers in the electoral finance process.

Rodney Hide, Act Leader

The Electoral Finance Bill is the most serious assault on free speech and political expression that New Zealand has ever seen - one that indefensibly restricts New Zealanders ability to fully participate in the political process.

Any limit on expenditure for political parties or so-called third parties constitutes an abhorrent suppression of this fundamental freedom, and it is for this reason that Act strongly opposes this bill.

Freedom of speech is vital to a democratic system; the High Court of Australia struck down an attempt in the 1980s to cap electoral spending on the grounds of freedom of expression.

Individuals most often donate to a party that best represents their own political views. The Electoral Finance Bill's new disclosure requirements will see such individuals publicly identified with a party, compromising people's right to cast a secret vote.

It is entirely inappropriate to make major changes to electoral law this close to an election; the electoral system functions to deliver democracy to New Zealanders, and it is they who should be consulted on such far-reaching matters. It does Parliament absolutely no credit whatsoever to be considering this bill.

Jim Anderton, Progressive Leader

Elections should not be decided by who has the biggest wallet. They should be decided by a contest of ideas between candidates and parties with fair access to the means of communicating with the public.

At the last election, anonymous people bought full-page newspaper advertisements in my electorate, printing lies about me on the day before the election. They also delivered this material to every household. There was no opportunity for me to respond.

Not many people in my electorate can afford to buy full-page ads in newspapers. Why should they have fewer democratic rights than anonymous liars, who turned out to be church members?

The difference the bill will make will be to put a stop to those kinds of unfair attempts at election-rigging. It will require people buying political ads in election year to give their real names and will put a cap on the amount of money anyone can spend to lobby for their point of view. That way, the fattest wallets won't drown out other points of view. The best ideas should win, not the best funded.

Anyone who opposes the Electoral Finance Bill needs to explain why unfair, anonymous, full-page lies on election eve should be allowed.

Peter Dunne, United Future Leader

Since 1956, the law has placed limits on how much political parties and individual candidates can spend on election campaigns and has required them to disclose the sources of their funding.

The EFB places similar limits on lobby groups promoting a political party during an election campaign.

Otherwise, parties and lobby groups could conspire to get around spending limits, which is not what most New Zealanders regard as fair. Within those confines, political parties and lobby groups should be free to express whatever political views they want to. This legislation strikes that balance, and creates a level playing field for all who wish to participate in the electoral process.

Hey, big spenders

The bitterness during the 2005 election campaign has been nothing compared to the bitterness about the campaign itself in the last two years.

Last year the report by Auditor-General Kevin Brady on the unlawful use of taxpayers' funds for electioneering dominated the political agenda.

Labour was stung by criticisms over its $400,000 pledge card and pamphlet which it has now repaid.

National was bruised by its association with the $1.2 million covert campaign of support by the Exclusive Brethren. It was not helped either with denials by then leader Don Brash of knowledge of the secret backing.

The Government has since passed a bill that would make spending on the pledge card lawful - though it is clear Labour will never attempt another one.

Parliament is in the midst of thrashing out the Government's other response to the 2005 election strife, the Electoral Finance Bill.

Passions are running high as is evident in the pieces the Herald asked parties to write to say why they are - or are not - supporting the bill.

The bill seeks to prevent not only a repeat of any covert campaign for a party but any declared big spending campaign over $120,000 from any group.

Big spending in election campaigns will be limited to political parties. Everyone wanting to participate to any significant degree will have to start counting their expenditure from January 1, next year. Transparency measures for anonymous and trust donations that Labour originally considered have been diluted significantly.

From January 1, parties, candidates and groups who know they want to spend more than $12,000 in election year will start notifying the Chief Electoral Office (individuals) and the Electoral Commission (parties and third parties) who their financial agent is.

The operational responsibilities of the Electoral Commission have been widened. It will play a more active part in the political process by being the conduit for substantial anonymous donations to political parties. But as an integral player, it may be difficult for the commission to maintain its watchdog role when it is needed most.

- Audrey Young

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