Bill a 'desperate bid to retain power' - Key

National leader John Key today claimed the controversial Electoral Finance Bill was a "desperate bid" by Labour to retain power.

He said it threatened people's right to freely express their political views and reiterated that a National-led government would scrap the Bill.

The Herald today ran a front-page editorial calling for the legislation to be scrapped and saying it was an attack on democracy.

Mr Key said: "The Electoral Finance Bill and the appropriation legislation are all about saving Labour by screwing the scrum in its favour."

Prime Minister Helen Clark attempted to give assurances over the Bill today.

She told Newstalk ZB today that what the Herald said about democracy not being a device to keep the Labour Party in power was true.

"Democracy's a device by which we choose our governments. The important thing is to have fair rules and a level playing field and what we've seen in New Zealand is the intrusion of very, and I underline very, big money into our election campaigns of the kind that wouldn't be tolerated in most other western democracies," she said.

She said Government departments would err on the side of caution when promoting policies during election year.

The Herald today reported that multimillion dollar advertising campaigns by government departments on Labour policy would be exempt from the election spending laws.

Parliament's justice and electoral select committee is meeting today behind closed doors to further discuss the electoral finance legislation.

Helen Clark said the electoral finance legislation had been before the select committee for some time.

"There's been a lot of discussion between political parties both in the committee and outside the committee. It's at the stage where they'll be looking to report back to Parliament."

She could not say whether the legislation would be back before Parliament this week.

The Herald said suggestions the Beehive was seeking immunity for government department advertising indicated it was concerned taxpayer-funded publicity campaigns on government policy in election year could face legal challenges from critics of the electoral law reform.

Helen Clark said government department promotion must be within guidelines approved by the auditor-general.

"Government departments can't electioneer," she said.

As usual in an election year, government departments would "bend over backwards" to make sure nothing they did could possibly be construed as electioneering, she said.

Government departments had promoted things like Kiwisaver "because it is government policy and frankly, if you're setting up a new savings scheme, it has to be able to be promoted".

"But I think you'll find that come election year, particularly as the months go by, government advertising becomes pretty sparse. But you've still got to do some basic things, for example, if you've got a drink driving campaign that's got to be advertised. It can't be seen as electioneering."

Government department would err on the side of caution in election year, she said.

The Government has proposed extending the three-month limit for election spending to cover the entire election year.

Helen Clark said that three-month period had been "rendered null and void" because the National Party had been able to raise "such a huge war chest that it could just spend like a drunk in a drink shop right through the year," Miss Clark said.

"I think public opinion wants big money out of politics, that's my gut feeling."

Helen Clark said the bill had been changed during the select committee process.

The select committee had been looking at a lot of issues, including the definition of election advertising and issues about the various thresholds.

"So, I think you'll see quite a lot of change in the bill."

- NZPA, NEWSTALK ZB

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