Claire Trevett

Claire Trevett is the New Zealand Herald’s deputy political editor.

Speed up electoral law breach process: Robertson

Radio Live was 'surprised' by the Electoral Committee's ruling over the DJ Key show last September.  Photo / File
Radio Live was 'surprised' by the Electoral Committee's ruling over the DJ Key show last September. Photo / File

Labour's deputy leader Grant Robertson said Parliament should consider changing the process of dealing with electoral law breaches to speed it up - including giving the Electoral Commission powers to fine or penalise for some breaches.

The Electoral Commission has referred Radio Live to the police for its show in September last year - The Prime Minister's Hour - saying it believed it was an election programme and breached the Broadcasting Act.

It took four months for the Electoral Commission to decide on the Radio Live case - and the delay meant there was no chance to remedy the situation before the election. He said he was not necessarily advocating any specific changes, but one possibility was giving the Electoral Commission more power.

Mr Robertson said the Electoral Commission was the expert body on electoral law, yet it had to send any breaches to Police to decide whether to act on them.

"The bigger issue is the number of complaints they've sent to the Police that nothing has happened with. So maybe there is another way. For instance, could you set a threshold under which the Electoral Commission was able to impose some sort of penalty rather than have to have Police prosecute it."

A spokeswoman for Police said enquiries were ongoing into a number of Electoral Commission referrals, including all of those from 2011 election and some from earlier by-elections.

Asked how Police dealt with those referrals, she said it was in the same way as any other complaint to police.

Prime Minister John Key said such electoral laws had been substantially considered and worked over in the past.

"I don't know why [the Radio Live decision] took so long. I wasn't technically party to it, so wasn't aware of the comings and goings. All I was aware of was the instructions Radio Live gave me, which was to keep the politics out of it."

In that Radio Live decision, the Commission said although it believed Radio Live breached the Broadcasting Act by allowing an election programme to go to air, it was not an election advertisement for Mr Key or the National Party. It said Mr Key was acting under the editorial direction of Radio Live - and editorial content was exempt from the definition of election advertising.

However, Mr Key's association with well known people on the programme and the chance to raise his personal profile would otherwise have meant it was an election advertisement.

In 2008, Police did not lay charges against another broadcaster - Newstalk ZB - for a similar matter. In that case, the Electoral Commission referred a Newstalk ZB show featuring NZ First leader Winston Peters and Labour MP Shane Jones as talkback hosts was an election programme. A spokeswoman for the Police said the case was resolved and Newstalk ZB were not charged.

In Mr Jones' case, the Commission said it was also an election advertisement because he ended by saying "Vote Labour." However, it said it was not an election advertisement for Mr Peters, for the same exemption on 'editorial content' that applied to Mr Key's Radio Live appearance.

Mr Peters had advised people give their party votes to NZ First, but it was in response to a callers' question about whether NZ First voters should also give their candidate votes to the party. The Commission said part of his editorial brief was to answer questions from callers, so it fell under the exemption of editorial content.

- NZ Herald

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