Labour's plan to sidestep ads law

By Audrey Young

The Labour Party is planning to use the resources of Government departments to campaign this year on its flagship policies, confidential strategy notes from the weekend Labour Congress in Wellington show.

In a private session on the election strategy, run by president Mike Williams, delegates were advised to distribute pamphlets on KiwiSaver produced by the Inland Revenue Department and on Working for Families produced by Work and Income.

They were also advised to tell voters when handing out the pamphlets that National voted against both measures.

Distributing Government department material explaining how new policies work is not unlawful.

But such publicity has never before been directly tied to political campaigns, and in the context of the new Electoral Finance Act, the move could be seen as inappropriate use of Government publicity.

National Party leader John Key today said he was not surprised by the directive, as Labour's goal in passing the Act was to silence critics, while at the same time allowing it to use the resources of Government to push its own message.

"Labour wrote the Electoral Finance Act with the sole purpose of closing National down, of screwing the scrum in the favour of Labour," Mr Key said on Radio New Zealand.

"Ever since, the very time they were lecturing us in Parliament about that, they were upstairs plotting to do a whole number of things in this election year.

"This is all about just trying to make the balance better for Labour."

The act has made political parties extremely cautious about advertising, because the definition of election advertising has been broadened to cover so much.

Fear over the act's extensive coverage - and its ability to eat into capped election spending - is so pronounced that at the Labour Congress information sheets given to delegates in policy sessions came with the warning that they should not redistribute them.

Inland Revenue and Work and Income pamphlets are not political in content.

But legal sources suggested last night that if such material was distributed by a party activist to support Labour, it could be argued that it met the act's definition of election advertising - essentially, any words or graphics that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging voters to support a candidate or party.

Under the act, it is unlawful for Government departments to produce material that could be considered election advertising.

Helen Clark this morning reiterated that explanatory pamphlets produced by Government departments were not election advertising.

"Things that government departments put out, are not - underline not - campaign material," she said on TVNZ's Breakfast programme.

"Things government departments put out should be in every MPs' office electorate office, regardless of what party they are in, because the whole point of an electorate office is to be the interface, the link, between the MP and what government programmes are about."

However Helen Clark said on Newstalk ZB she would advise her MPs and their staff not to hand out the materials in a campaigning way, which some legal experts believe could fall foul of the Act.

In a statement, the Prime Minister's spokeswoman said Helen Clark had asked for an explanation from those who attended various conference sessions following the Herald's story this morning.

The spokeswoman said: "She has been advised that the suggestion about using material from government departments was raised from the floor by a delegate.

"She has since instructed that such material is not to be handed out by canvassers, or for campaigning.

"However electorate offices serving MPs across all parties can continue to have the material on display as part of the interface between constituents and government agencies."

Auditor-General Kevin Brady raised concerns about the use of Government publicity as a political tool in a report he wrote in June 2005, three months before the election.

He said a non-political departmental publicity campaign for a policy such as Working for Families could still have value to the Government as a political tool if it were used in a wider, more politically driven campaign.

THE ISSUE

* Information about KiwiSaver and Working for Families is available from Government departments.

* Labour plans to use the departments' leaflets in the election campaign, reminding voters that National voted against the policies.

* National says Labour is trying to dodge new rules that restrict campaign spending.

- With NZPA

- NZ Herald

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