Labour's 'Best Start' unlikely to breach electoral law

By Derek Cheng

Labour leader David Cunliffe.
Labour leader David Cunliffe.

They share the same name and overlap on some policy grounds, but Labour's Best Start policy and the primary teacher union's Beststart campaign are unlikely to ruffle any electoral law feathers.

When Labour launched a suite of child-based policies under Best Start earlier this year, it raised some eyebrows from the NZ Educational Institute, which had began its own Beststart campaign in March last year focused on early childhood education.

The Labour Party was sufficiently concerned to ask for a legal opinion into the potential for any electoral finance issues.

Under the Electoral Act, an election advertisement is something that may reasonably be regarded as encouraging someone to vote for a party or candidate, directly or indirectly. Material published by a third party promoter, such as NZEI, could count towards that party's overall election expenses.

The legal opinion, by Lane Neave, noted overlaps between Labour's Best Start and NZEI's Beststart, including support for 100 per cent fully qualified ECE teachings staff.

But it found that the NZEI campaign was unlikely to be regarded as election advertising.

The similar names were "coincidental, and not of itself determinative".

It noted material on the Beststart website critical of the National-led Government, but this was "insufficient to meet the threshold of an advertisement".

Because Beststart was launched before the Labour policy announcement, "it can hardly be said that the NZEI launched its campaign in support of Labour".

Labour general secretary Tim Barnett said NZEI was not indirectly campaigning for the party.

"Their campaign doesn't advocate support for Labour's policy or the Labour Party. If their Beststart campaign was active at the moment and was advocating support for Labour, then it would be something we would seek to work with through the third party rules, but we're completely convinced [there is no issue]."

NZEI said in a statement that it was an independent organisation that never advocated for a particular party.

It had registered with the Electoral Commission as a promoter as a precaution, "given the broad reach of the Electoral Finance Act", and had no prior knowledge of Labour's use of "Best Start"to describe its policy package.

It added that there was no plans to spend any money on the Beststart campaign during the regulated period (June 20 to September 19).

"But importantly, we don't view this as electoral spending anyway."

Promoters must be registered if they expect to spend more than $12,300 on election advertising during the regulated period.

A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said NZEI had not sought any advice from the commission.

- NZ Herald

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