Labour spending 'shows need for rule change'

By Maggie Tait

Alleged overspending by the Labour Party showed rules around campaigning needed a re-think, Victoria University political lecturer Jon Johansson says.

Yesterday the Electoral Commission announced it had asked police to investigate overspending of about $400,000 by the Labour Party on the election campaign. It spent nearly $2.8 million in total and breaching the limit is an offence under the Electoral Act.

Labour had asked that spending of $446,815 by the Office of the Leader be excluded but it was included.

Mr Johansson said the spending should be kept in context.

"I read today that there's a prediction that (United States senator) Hillary Clinton is going to raise by 2008 $500 million for her presidential campaign.

"In New Zealand you are not talking about some rampant system out of control."

He said there needed to be far clearer rules around campaigning.

"Campaigning is a constantly evolving process and there are other aspects of campaigning such as parallel campaigning -- which is what National accuses the unions of doing for Labour and what Labour accuses the Exclusive Brethren doing for National.

"All of that should be far more transparent and it just points to the fact we need to have a serious look at some of the rules of engagement around campaign funding."

Electoral Commission chief executive Helena Catt said the commission had sought legal advice before forwarding the case to police.

The disputed spending was used on Labour Party pledge cards and a pamphlet talking about Labour's policies for the future.

Labour has defended its spending.

"It is the party's view that the electoral law is outdated and consequently unclear. We hope that these investigations will lead to greater clarity in the future," the party said in a statement.

The National Party had earlier complained to Chief Electoral Officer David Henry about the two Labour Party advertisements -- one reading "My commitments to you" which contained the Labour Party pledge card of election promises, and the other an A2-sized foldout that read: "Working together, sharing a vision. Labour's policies for the future".

Mr Henry upheld the complaint saying the material should have stated who authorised it as it was campaign material. That matter is also being considered by police.

Mr Henry had then alerted the Electoral Commission because it was the body that supervised compliance with the requirements of party expense returns.

National Party president Judy Kirk said she was pleased the case was being investigated and suggested the material may have affected the election result.

"It's a real concern. This is a significant amount of money and there was a very close election result."

Asked if it was the difference between National winning and losing Mrs Kirk said: "Obviously you can think about that ... certainly it was a very close election result and it was a real concern."

Mr Johansson did not think the issue was pivotal.

"I doubt whether money was a decisive one for the National Party in this election.

"Ultimately National could also look to the fact that Labour's election campaign ran one day later than National's when they mobilised all those votes."

He said there were many factors affecting the result but one was that Labour managed to get more people who hadn't voted to do so using techniques such as buses to convey people to booths.

"They had a whole organisation that hoovered up South Auckland."

Dr Catt said it was up to police to decide who would be held accountable and be prosecuted if that course of action was decided on.

Individuals can face fines up to $4000 but could also be jailed for a year.

She said such cases were disappointing.

"The limits on election spending are there to ensure fairness in an election."

Dr Catt took the opportunity to give political parties a serve over tardy and incorrect returns, only 13 of 22 met the December 19 deadline.

The commission would raise the idea of an automatic late filing fee in the justice and electoral select committee election review.

"It is apparent that many haven't given sufficient attention to planning. Only one or two party secretaries appeared to have reasonable explanations for lateness, such as illness or bereavement."

Labour Party president Mike Williams said it was the party's view that electoral law was outdated and consequently unclear.

"We hope that these investigations will lead to greater clarity in the future."

Mr Williams said Labour was co-operating fully with the enquiries.

No further comment would be made until all matters had been resolved.

Police are also investigating the National Party for breaching the Broadcasting Act for failing to account for $100,000 in GST.

This is the first time under MMP that parties have been investigated by police for alleged election expenses breaches.

- NZPA

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