Clarkson's campaign spending examined

By Juliet zRowan, Juliet Rowan

A telephone poll, campaign manager's salary, billboards and other advertising have come under scrutiny at a hearing to decide whether Tauranga MP Bob Clarkson should lose his seat for campaign overspending.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters alleges that the National MP spent at least five times the $20,000 election campaign spending limit and is guilty of corrupt practice under the Electoral Act 1993.

Mr Clarkson has denied the allegation which, if proved, would cost him his seat and result in a byelection.

Three High Court judges listened to submissions from lawyers for both sides during the first day of the hearing in Tauranga yesterday.

The case is the first of its kind under the Electoral Act and also marked the first time the High Court has formally sat in Tauranga.

Chief High Court judge Justice Tony Randerson, who is presiding over the hearing with Justices Lowell Goddard and Graham Panckhurst, said it was "an historic occasion".

Mr Clarkson and his campaign manager Wayne Walford have been called by Mr Peters' lawyer, Brian Henry, to appear as witnesses today.

Mr Clarkson's lawyers, Colin Pidgeon QC and Peter Kiely, have opted not to call Mr Peters, who is still overseas after attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta.

In his opening address, Mr Henry said Mr Clarkson knowingly spent more than $20,000 in the three months leading up to the September 17 election, making him guilty of a corrupt act and voiding his victory over Mr Peters, whom he beat by 730 votes.

Mr Henry said the aim of the Electoral Act was to create an "equal playing field" among candidates and ensure someone could not "buy their way into a constituency".

The actual amount Mr Clarkson spent was not as important as the market value of what he spent. A candidate should not have an unfair advantage for "getting things on the cheap".

Mr Henry focused on a "push polling telephone campaign" he said Mr Clarkson used to promote himself in the electorate, estimating the market value of the poll as not less than $22,500.

Mr Clarkson had also placed a campaign billboard and other signs on the side of a property leased from his own company.

The market value of the signage was estimated at more than $7200, plus additional costs for renting the display space.

Mr Clarkson's lawyers argued a rental provision was unnecessary as market values were relevant only to the donation of materials.

Mr Pidgeon said it would affect almost every candidate who put hoardings on private land if roadside rental was assessed.

He also dismissed a claim that Mr Walford's salary was an election expense, saying his tasks were primarily administrative.

Evidence would be provided that the telephone poll was done by volunteers, and was not therefore an election expense.

Mr Pidgeon said some of the assertions made by Mr Peters in his petition to the court were "nonsensical".

"This petition approaches very close to being frivolous and vexatious."

Four witnesses were called by Mr Henry yesterday, including two newspaper executives who were asked if they gave Mr Clarkson special rates for campaign advertisements.

Sun publisher Brian Rogers, who said Mr Clarkson placed four ads before the election, replied: "We give discounts to all our best customers, including Mr Peters."

Bay of Plenty Times general manager Rod Hall was asked about a three-page supplement about Mr Clarkson that was published on July 20.

Under cross-examination by Mr Clarkson's lawyers, he said the MP had no involvement with production of the supplement.

Both witnesses were asked to return today with further documents.

In addition to Mr Clarkson and Mr Walford, Mr Henry plans to call a Labour Party member to testify. He would not reveal the person's name.

The allegations:

* Winston Peters alleges Tauranga MP Bob Clarkson overspent the $20,000 campaign spending limit by at least $80,000 and is therefore guilty of a corrupt act under the Electoral Act 1993.

* Mr Clarkson denies the allegation, which if proved would cost him his seat and result in a byelection.

* Three High Court judges are deciding the matter in a hearing set down for the rest of the week.

* The judges will report to Parliament's Speaker, Margaret Wilson, who announces the result.

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