Govt offers National 11th hour talks on Electoral Finance Bill

By Ian Llewellyn

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The Government has made an 11th hour offer to talk to National about the Electoral Finance Bill with Prime Minister Helen Clark saying some of its amendments would be accepted.

National's deputy leader Bill English said the last minute offer smacked of desperation and most of the amendments would be technical making a "ridiculous bill, a little more workable".

The controversial reform of election campaign laws is going through its final stage in Parliament this week and today both the Government and National tabled amendments.

Miss Clark told Parliament some of them were acceptable to her.

"I am happy to say that at first glance a couple of their suggestions appear useful," Miss Clark said.

In a surprise move Cabinet Minister Pete Hodgson also told MPs that Justice Minister Annette King was willing to talk to National about its concerns.

"The minister of justice will hold discussions with other parties who wish to hold discussions... including the National Party. If the National Party is interested," Ms King said

National's Deputy Leader Bill English pointed out changes to the bill was being debated today and the minister was now suggesting talks in the future when it could be law by the end of the week.

Mr Hodgson replied it was up to Mr English whether he took part in the talks or not.

National has introduced amendments to change the aspects of the bill it most objected to - such as shortening the regulated period to three months rather than all of election year.

It would be a shock if this was passed into a law as it has been strongly defended by Labour and New Zealand First.

There were also a number of technical amendments to make it practical for political parties and the public.

"It will be so easy to break this law without knowing if we don't narrow it down and make it simpler,"' Mr English said.

"We think they will accept some of our amendments on definitions because a number of those definitions are just unworkable. The idea that people have to have statutory approval to use a megaphone is ridiculous."

The Government has come in for heavy criticism over the bill itself and the process it went through.

National in particular believed a rewrite of election rules should have general agreement from the two major parties.

Instead Labour has gained the support of New Zealand First and the Greens to get it through Parliament.

Mr English was unimpressed by the last minute offer of talks.

"The Government's offer today to talk to us is both very surprising after two years and a measure of their desperation".

Ms King said the Government's amendments would clarify the intention of the bill as it was not about the suppression of free speech, rather it was to fetter the influence of those who sought to buy elections.

"The Government is willing to listen to further sensible amendments," Ms King said.

* A summary of some of the changes proposed to the Electoral Finance Bill introduced by the Government and National today.

The Government

*Narrowing the definition of "publish", particularly by removing the part of the definition that would have encompassed advertisements that were brought "to the notice of the public in any other manner."

*Reason - Critics feared that too a wide range of material would have been regulated under the law.

*Allowing the Electoral Commission and the Chief Electoral Office to decide that an alleged breach of the legislation is so inconsequential that there is no public interest in reporting it to the police.

*Reason - The complex and wide ranging nature of the bill meant it could lead to a wide range of complaints of a minor nature getting before the courts.

*Shortening the period prior to an election during which third parties cannot register with the Electoral Commission to take part in an election campaign.

*Reason - This was a recommendation made by the Human Rights Commission and Electoral Commission as there were fears that groups which became concerned about the actions of political parties or MPs close to election day would be prevented from spending much money on the issue.

National

*Further changes to the definition of publishing and election advertisement making them similar to current law.

*Reason - Fears too much covered and National sees no need for change.

*Make the regulated period 3 months before election days instead of starting on January 1.

*Reason - This is the part of the bill that National most strongly objects to. It says the proposal unfairly restricts free speech for the public and political parties for one-third of the electoral cycle.

*Establishing an independent Chief Electoral Prosecutor to prosecute under this bill, rather than the police.

*Reason - Concerns that the police do not have the skills or resources to handle electoral law.

*Making parties liable for prosecution, rather than just party secretaries and financial agents.

*Reason - Fears too much responsibility placed on individuals who had little control over events they were being held account for.

*Adjusting spending, donation and registration limits annually for inflation.

*Reason - Fears the limits will be overtaken by time.

- NZPA

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