Editorial: National should pay it back now

There is, as the National Party notes, a considerable difference between its unpaid goods and service tax debt to several broadcasters and Labour's unlawful election spending. But, uncomfortably for it, distinct similarities have emerged. One is the unseemly tangle into which National has worked itself, and the unsavoury solutions that are being contemplated. Another is that, like Labour, it is loath to bite the bullet and pay the money back.

National's well-warranted discomfort stems from its failure to add GST on to its broadcasting spending during last year's election campaign, an omission that gained it extra television and radio advertising. It says this was the result of a "misunderstanding" between the party and its advertising booking agency. A total of $112,000 is still owed to the companies that carried its advertisements. What should have been a minor embarrassment became a sizeable irritant when it was discovered that paying the money back would place National in breach of the Broadcasting Act spending cap.

Repayment, the party says, will prompt the Electoral Commission to refer the matter to the police, which must decide if there is a case. National points to the possibility of the maximum $100,000 fine being imposed or, worse still, a judge deciding that each payment to a broadcaster warranted a separate fine.

The all-in penalty could, therefore, be up to $500,000.

National has worked overtime to try to prevent that outcome. As dubious a vehicle as an overseas trust has been suggested as a means of repaying the money while, at the same time, making prosecution more difficult. In a similarly errant manner, party leader Don Brash has put his name on a private member's bill that would allow the party to pay without breaking the law. Labour has not been slow to pounce on this resort to retrospective legislation. National, after all, had scathingly criticised its use of just that mechanism to validate its unlawful use of parliamentary funding.

In fact, little harm would accrue if National simply paid the money back. It worries about prosecution, yet the police would have their own difficulties. Having declined to pursue Labour, they would be accused of bias if they chose to tackle National. It would be far easier, and far more logical, for them to point to the serious criminal activities that demand their attention. Even if National did face prosecution, it seems highly unlikely a court would look too dimly on its "misunderstanding". The fines quoted by the party are maximum penalties. Most likely, a judge would impose a punishment that reflected an understanding of National's predicament.

Nor is National likely to find an answer in Dr Brash's bill. A previous attempt to introduce it foundered when it was opposed by New Zealand First, the Maori Party and the Greens. Now, it languishes as a private member's bill ballot. Only good luck will see it emerge and, even then, it is highly unlikely to gain sufficient support to pass. Meanwhile, National will, quite justifiably, be taunted for its recourse to validating legislation.

It is now 11 months since National confirmed the error in the way it spent its advertising allocation. During the later part of that period it has profited greatly from Labour's initial refusal and then grudging agreement to reimburse the public accounts. It has said, time and again, that it wants the issue resolved. Yet, seemingly having learned nothing from Labour's embarrassment, it keeps going off on tangents. National has little to lose from paying the money back. It has integrity to gain. The bill should be paid immediately.

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