Vast majority want parties to pay back unlawfully spent money

By Paula Oliver

A huge majority of Labour supporters think the party should pay back taxpayers' money if it is found to have illegally spent the cash on getting elected.

In an unmistakably clear message from voters, 81 per cent of respondents to the latest Herald-DigiPoll survey said political parties should repay unlawfully spent money.

Significantly, more than three-quarters of Labour supporters - 75.8 per cent - want the money paid back, and only 13.5 per cent support the party's idea of passing a law to validate the spending.

The poll result is a slap in the face for Labour, which has argued strongly against a draft view from Auditor-General Kevin Brady that much taxpayer-funded advertising before last year's election was illegal.

As much as $800,000 of Labour's spending is believed to be under question. This includes the $446,000 spent on the party's pledge card.

National has paid back just over $10,000 that it said the Auditor-General identified as illegal spending by its MPs.

The Progressives incurred no liability, and the Maori Party has paid back $53.

United Future, Act, the Greens and New Zealand First are still under scrutiny.

Political parties are allocated taxpayer money for various functions. But it cannot be used for advertising which solicits support for a party or candidate at an election.

The Auditor-General is working on his final report about spending before last year's election, and was last week sent responses from parties identified in his draft report as having a problem.

National leader Don Brash last night said he was pleased the poll "substantiates what our own view has been".

He said election spending and the Taito Phillip Field affair were clearly in the public mind.

"Helen Clark has tried to run the argument that this is really just a 'beltway' issue - of no concern to any people but those plugged into the Wellington political scene," Dr Brash said.

"It seems very clear that New Zealanders generally value integrity in political life."

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said all parliamentary parties were awaiting the Auditor-General's final report, and it was inappropriate to comment.

Labour is also dealing with discontent in one of its key support bases over the Phillip Field saga.

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union yesterday withdrew its support for Mr Field.

It is talking to members about looking for a new Labour candidate for Mangere.

As reported in yesterday's Herald, Labour is 7.7 points behind National in the Herald-DigiPoll party vote survey.

Asked about that result, Helen Clark said her party had been dealing with "some difficult issues in recent times".

"But we have a strong programme, we have strong support on confidence and supply and I'm getting on with the job," the Prime Minister said.

National is trying to keep the election spending issue running as long as it can, and yesterday it again used question time in the House to put heat on ministers.

It issued figures it claimed showed Labour accelerated its election spending in the final two weeks of last year's election campaign despite being warned by the Chief Electoral Officer that its pledge card was unlawful.

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