Editorial: Last rites for electoral law

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Having rushed electoral advertising restrictions into law, the Government has had a long time to repent. At last it has done so. Its announcement of an "expert panel" to review electoral arrangements next year is nothing more than an admission that the clumsy law has become a ludicrous embarrassment.

It is stifling or inhibiting everything from MPs' vehicle logos to public health promotions - most recently a cervical cancer screening campaign. With the election nine weeks away at most, the country is unusually subdued. The hubbub that would normally be building by now as interest groups vied for voters' attention has been reduced to a few cautious notices, mainly by Labour-aligned interests.

The last rites on the Electoral Finance Act were read last week when the head of the Electoral Commission, the body charged with enforcing it, declared the law was having a "chilling effect" on public participation in the imminent election. The next day Justice Minister Annette King announced the review.

It comes, of course, too late to repair the damage done to this election. The panel consisting of Otago law professor Andrew Geddis and two political science lecturers, Victoria's Stephen Levine and Jean Drage of Canterbury, has been given a year to complete the exercise.

During the course of it they are to be assisted by a "citizens' forum" of 70 people, at least one from each electorate, chosen to broadly represent the population by age, ethnicity and gender and excluding holders of some highly political positions. The forum, a Green Party idea, will be invited to discuss a paper produced by the expert panel outlining options for political funding and other matters of electoral administration.

While the elaborate procedure sounds interesting, it is probably academic. The National Party has already said it will dismiss the panel. National says it was not consulted on the proposed review and points out that the Government has broken a convention that significant public appointments are not made within three months of a general election.

Labour could not have made the arrangements at this late stage with any expectation that National would be bound by them. The review is plainly designed simply to give the Government's election campaign a response to the inevitable criticism it will incur for the Electoral Finance Act. It will say it always envisaged a post-election review to iron out problems with the new law, but when the legislation was passed in December it promised to appoint a review panel early this year. Had it done so, the exercise might have been credible. It is rather late now.

National, if it forms the next government, will have to replace the Electoral Finance Act with something better than the opaque rules that preceded the act. It ought to hold an all-party conference to draw up questions of political finance to be put to an independent commission. It ought to be wary of political academics who are inclined to believe that the public purse should fund everything to do with elections.

Taxpayers already finance most of the activities of parties in Parliament, giving them too much advantage over those not already in the House. The supposed advantages conferred by private wealth are trifling in comparison. The Electoral Finance Act - or was it the Exclusive Brethren Act? - brought a sledgehammer to a nut.

Whatever law replaces it needs to ensure a place for privately financed political campaigns unconstrained by the new rules, restrictions, registration and reporting requirements that, as predicted, have discouraged many from participating this year. Our political life has been poorer for it.

- NZ Herald

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