Editorial: Mockery has its place in election campaigns

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Radio programmers cannot play a song that mocks John Key because it may breach the Electoral Act. Photo / Thinkstock
Radio programmers cannot play a song that mocks John Key because it may breach the Electoral Act. Photo / Thinkstock

How absurd that radio programmers cannot play a song that mocks John Key because it may breach the Electoral Act, and how ironic that the singer has been gagged by an act of the previous Labour Government. Darren "Guitar" Watson's song contains a lyric that, in the words of the Act, "appears to encourage voters to vote or not to vote for a political party or candidate".

News bulletins on radio and television are exempt from the restriction on "third party advertising" and no doubt by now most people will have heard Mr Watson's voice and seen an accompanying video that its creators consider more "subversive" than the song. But it is simply silly that the song and video cannot be given airtime in their own right to enliven the election campaign.

Helen Clark's overreaction to the Exclusive Brethren seven years ago has created a regulatory minefield for anyone outside a political party who wants to inject some argument or entertainment into a New Zealand election.

National shares the blame. It reviewed the advertising rules when it came to office but made only minor alterations to them.

Perhaps National will be big enough to take another look at them if it is returned at the election. It could take its cue from the Prime Minister, who had seen the video this week and took it in good spirit. "As a parody it was okay," he said. "It's certainly a lot more professional than the Dotcom video of people screaming and chanting at me."

Election campaigns are not just for registered political parties and people standing for election. They are a forum for everyone who has the urge to say something about events and the ability to say it. Ability does not simply mean wealth as the Clark Government supposed, it also means creative ability and commercial or organisational backing. Mr Watson is not the first National critic to be hoist by Labour's petard. Just last month a number of environmental groups were warned by the Electoral Commission that a campaign aimed at forcing all parties to address climate change could be against the law.

The commission must be finding this part of its task particularly troubling, for one of its other tasks is to encourage greater electoral participation, particularly among the young. Music and video and independent promotions of issues such as climate change probably have much more resonance for young people than the speeches and billboards of people running for election.

Artists, actors, musicians, sporting figures and other role models should all be encouraged to show their interest in an election and share their voting intention if they dare. It is a big step for them to venture into political controversy as Lucy Lawless frequently does.

People in showbusiness face enough risk to their reputation and popularity without putting legal pitfalls in their way.

The act requires anyone taking out advertising - or publishing a sound or video recording it turns out - to register with the Electoral Commission as a third party and adhere to the spending restrictions and accounting requirements set down. Industry associations and trade unions may be accustomed to this sort of red tape but musicians and many others who might be moved to put a view in front of the voters will find the rules discouraging.

Excessive regulation usually reveals itself in perverse consequences. Rules written in fear of financial influence, were not intended to stifle politically loaded music and satire. Nobody foresaw that they would.

The law has become a laugh, which is perhaps the only unregistered political humour it will permit.

- NZ Herald

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