The seven members of the Exclusive Brethren who ran a campaign against National's opponents last election last night condemned Labour's election law reform plans as desperate.
They issued a statement saying the proposal to make negative advertising count as campaign spending was ill-informed "and demonstrates how grossly desperate Helen Clark has become".
They also accused the Prime Minister of "political thuggery". She hit back today by accusing the Brethren of "slinging mud".
Before the last election, the seven men wrote to the Chief Electoral Officer saying they wanted to spend about $1.2 million in advertising but did not want it to be counted against National's spending limits. Their advertising did not endorse National but attacked its opponents and so did not count against National.
Labour's election reform plans are being discussed behind closed doors but the Herald has revealed they include strict limits on such campaigning.
Negative third-party campaigning would be counted against a party even if it did not endorse it. Any third-party campaigning would be limited to a cost of $60,000 nationally, and would require the permission of the party it endorsed.
Organisations such as unions or companies would be exempt if their messages were deemed to be communicating with members.
The seven Exclusive Brethren members said in a statement to the Herald the proposals were "designed to further defraud the democratic rights from the political process by effectively banning third-party campaigning while leaving the door open for Clark's allies to fill her election chests".
"If a person or organisation wished to express their dissatisfaction publicly with her Government, under this law whose would the expenditure be? The National Party? The Greens? All other parties?"
It said the Government had run out of ideas and would erode democratic freedoms to ensure it was re-elected next year. The statement is signed by Timothy Lough, Greg Mason, Andrew Simmons, Neville Simmons, Andrew Smith, Douglas Watt, and Phillip Win.
Neville Simmons said the group had responded to the proposal because it had felt particularly targeted.
The men had not made any decisions about what to do at the next election and were acting as individuals, not on behalf of the church.
Helen Clark today said she found it "extraordinary" the Brethren members were again embroiling themselves in politics and "slinging mud".
"I regard the covert way in which they intervened in the last election as anti-democratic," she said.
"The Exclusive Brethren's behaviour shook a lot of people's faith in the system in New Zealand and we don't want that to occur again. We want the way New Zealand elections are financed to be beyond reproach."
Miss Clark also hit out at National's criticisms that the proposals were designed to favour Labour and hobble its opponents.
"Of course the National Party will squeal, because the secrecy of the current arrangements suits their purposes very well."
Miss Clark said state funding was Labour Party policy, but would only be in the final legislation if the Government could get enough support.
- with NZPA