Like it or not, the financing of politics is up for public discussion again. This time the trigger is not a sudden, vengeful, partisan bill but a reasonably phrased paper from the Justice Ministry that invites comment on many issues that need to be resolved after the previous Government's Electoral Finance Act. Reading the document, most people may be struck by the complexity of rules that regulate political finance even without the hapless act.
Party secretaries face a miasma of different donation limits, disclosure requirements, spending restrictions, reporting and authorisation procedures for constituency and party campaigns. The 2007 act introduced yet another set of rules for groups that were not contesting an election but sought to influence it through "third party" advertising, which the discussion paper calls "parallel campaigns".
The paper invites views on whether there should be restrictions on such groups, and on government departments' publications in the period before an election. It still entertains the idea that any such group should have to register to spend over a certain amount and wants to know whether a threshold of spending should make registration obligatory.
The answer from many people might be, no. Many, perhaps most, voters reasonably wonder what is wrong with people spending their own money on a political campaign if they want to? They do not share the view that private finance is inherently unfair.
There are many inequalities that bear on an election contest, wealth is just one. The discussion paper mentions that restrictions on campaign donations do not extend, for example, to the labour of supporters. Parties are required to account for all goods or services provided at less than normal charges, except for those who volunteer time and energy to staff phones, distribute flyers and the like.
Why is that form of donation excluded? If one party attracts more people with time to offer rather than money, that is an advantage every bit as valuable. Enforced electoral equality is absurd. Strictly speaking parties would have to be regulated to control advantages of intelligence, debating skill and good looks, too.
This is not to argue that no rules on party finance are needed, but to suggest that the subject is not quite as important as left-wing activists and academics believe. Our elections do not need the level of financial regulation they receive. Legislators should be looking to greatly simplify the rules of donation and disclosure and do away with as many as possible.
Donations of more than $1000 to a party or a candidate within a three-year parliamentary term should have to be disclosed, and before the election, not months afterward. Parties should have to raise their campaign funds by an agreed date and make their disclosure in good time for voters to consider it. Otherwise, what is the point?
Adequate disclosure of donors could remove the need for spending limits. If we know a party's backers, we can assess its spending. Extravagant campaigns could be counterproductive. Likewise, a lavish independent, or parallel, campaign can be harmless so long as its material bears the name of someone who must answer for it.
The discussion paper permits the broadcasting restrictions to be questioned, too, and the public financing of party commercials. The public never had much say in the creeping regulation of our politics. Now we do.
If we neglect this discussion paper we leave the work to diligent political souls with often wildly inflated fears of the private wealth. Legislators need to hear that an effective rule of disclosure is really the key to a fair contest.