Audrey Young: Electoral law review lacks credibility thanks to process

The one thing that can be said of Labour's handling of the sensitive issues of election spending and election funding is that it has been consistent - consistently poor.

When the Government decided to review the election financing law last year, it failed to recognise how badly it - and Parliament as a whole - had been tainted by the resistance it showed to the Auditor General's finding of unlawful parliamentary spending in the 2005 election.

It treated him, its own watchdog, with contempt. That heightened the natural suspicion that abounds when politicians are let loose on their own spending rules.

That suspicion and vitriol that ensued from the Auditor General's report last year was no base from which to launch a new review of electoral law.

The most credible course would have been to set up an independent inquiry.

It may seem a quaint notion these days, but that is what governments have done to protect outcomes of matters too important to be left to the bearpit of normal party politics.

Electoral law has always fallen into that category in the past. And it should have been no different for this review.

So fundamentally challenging are some of the proposals that have emerged from the politically tainted review, that the Government's own freedom-of-expression watchdogs in Crown Law have issued cautions that its plans for political donations and to curb non-party political advertising may breach the Bill of Rights.

As well as being afraid that it might not have got what it wanted from an independent review, Labour may have feared that losing control of the review process would turn into a quasi court on MMP itself.

National has powerful anti-MMP backers who could well have turned a commission of inquiry into electoral law into an inquiry into the MMP electoral system that has served Labour well, and which Labour has mastered much better than National.

The course the Government took was a private review, blending the expertise of officials who had genuine ills to address after four MMP elections and the more jaundiced desires of their political masters.

It was led by Justice Minister Mark Burton, who in turn was guided by Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen, and Labour election strategist and minister Pete Hodgson, the latter two possessing firmer hands and more political guile.

The process smacked of self-interest at the outset, and the result has lived up to its promise: a series of proposals affecting disclosure of donations and restrictions on spending, which in relative terms advantages Labour over National.

Many of the proposals have merit but all are tainted because of the process.

All has not gone according to plan, however.

Prime Minister Helen Clark had left Auckland on Monday for the start of the America's Cup racing in Spain. National leader John Key had headed to Japan for a break from politics.

The Government's aim was to let MPs take it easy this week, then spend the next few weeks privately consulting the smaller parties to nail down the numbers for its election spending reform bill, isolating National as much as possible.

After securing the numbers for the bill to proceed, Labour would get its PR flunkies onto the case to devise a communications strategy to convince the media and the public that this was sensible reform and that curbs on private support should be offset by state funding of almost $10 million every three years.

Instead its confidential plans were revealed by the Herald this week and gave National an immediate platform to begin its campaign against them.

Labour was taken by surprise but it decided not to deviate from plan A and said nothing. Subsequently the Opposition filled the news vacuum for most of the quiet post-Easter news week.

English, and later Gerry Brownlee, implied improper motives for Labour wanting state funding, suggesting it needed it after having to repay $800,000 of parliamentary money the Auditor General found it had unlawfully spent.

English suggested bias towards unions through rules that would limit what outside groups can spend in campaigns unless they were communicating with members. He accused Labour of trying to "screw the scrum" through a move aimed at prohibiting any repeat of National's pre-campaign billboard campaign.

Labour kept out of it, not knowing whether to give English oxygen or not. Labour's diffidence is understandable. It has miscalculated badly on the public's interest in election rules before. Shortly after the Auditor General's interim report was leaked last year, Clark dismissed it as something only of interest in "beltway" and she was proven wrong.

After a couple of days of National dominance, there was more than a little nervousness within Labour about the damage that English was doing.

Then Labour's prayers were answered from an unlikely quarter.

Joining the debate from nowhere sprang the outraged Exclusive Brethren members, whose covert campaign last election to unseat Labour had motivated the law reform in the first place.

So discredited were the Brethren's methods, that having them side with English on Thursday was a major morale boost for Labour.

One could imagine Helen Clark exclaiming down the telephone line from Madrid when she heard the news that the Brethren had seemed to have reappeared on the political horizon: "Make my day!"

And one could perhaps hear a faint echo around Parliament of English banging his head against a brick wall.

National has long since washed its hands of accepting support from the Exclusive Brethren, believing it probably cost them the last election rather than helping them.

Clark slammed the Brethren from Spain and Justice Minister Mark Burton began to publicly front for the party on Thursday. The Exclusive Brethren rescued Labour, but its effects will be temporary.

After this week, Labour will abandon the state-funding component of the proposals and proceed with the rest. It is now saying privately that the only reason it put it in the reforms in the first place was to give weight to its own members, who at last year's conference passed a state funding remit.

If it wanted, Labour could probably drive a hard bargain with the smaller parties to get the whole bill, including the state-funding, to select committee, but it is highly unlikely to press for it.

The upshot would be a series of select committee hearings up and down the country for months on end where issues of self-interest and state-funding could overshadow the opportunity to highlight the secret donations that National has encouraged for years, and the covert attack campaign mounted in support of them by members of the Exclusive Brethren.

Unless Labour has abandoned its political instincts altogether, it is not going to hand the moral high ground to National.

A more credible way of keeping the issue alive would be to cauterise state-funding before the package is introduced to Parliament in May, and commission an independent inquiry - to report after the election.

That could restore credibility to the argument that was denied by the process Labour took.

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