Mai Chen: Remember the vote and the bucket list

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Prime Minister’s career-change decision illustrates the sacrifices political leaders make to serve their nation

Prime Minister John Key at the  launch of his biography. Photo / Richard Robinson
Prime Minister John Key at the launch of his biography. Photo / Richard Robinson

Reading the biography of John Key makes me realise that you have to be really brave to live your bucket list. What affected me most was the Prime Minister's third reason for changing his career to politics. He could have stayed as a trader and made more money, but he thought he had enough.

Most of the successful people I talk to say "what is enough? It is never enough." But the only thing there is not enough of is time - time to do the things we really want to do, if nurses' reports of the most common thing people say on their death beds are right: "I wish I had done what I wanted to do, and not what others thought I should do."

So John Key could have kept trading and making millions, and his counterpart, David Cunliffe, could have done the same working at Boston Consulting Group, but they wanted to serve. Politics pays comparatively little. We should remember these sacrifices when we decide whether to bother voting in a couple of months, as well as the sacrifices made by the other political leaders.

We should also be inspired to live our own bucket list which is why I am writing this in Dublin, and going to Copenhagen next - see my-bucketlist.co.nz.

Electoral limits on free speech

Another issue that often arises during election year is free speech, because our electoral legislation limits the amount that can be spent on campaigning so merit and not money determines who wins.

Greenpeace, Forest and Bird, the WWF and others said this week they would challenge in the High Court the Electoral Commission's opinion that their Climate Voter website is an election advertisement because it encourages voting for particular types of parties.

These organisations respond that the commission's interpretation of "election advertisement" is too broad and will gag all civil society groups from advocating - whether for better cancer funding, milk in schools or lower taxes - if they don't put a promoter statement on it under electoral law.

But the right to free expression is not absolute right and the Bill of Rights Act allows the rights it affirms to be subject to "reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society".

If you want to spend more than $12,500 on promoting election advertisements, you must register as a third-party promoter. You then become subject to spending caps and disclosure requirements, and must include a promoter statement on all election advertisements.

The Electoral Act defines an electoral advertisement as one in any medium that may reasonably be regarded as encouraging or persuading voters to vote or not vote for a candidate, party, or type of candidate or parties.

The High Court decision will have significant implications for anybody involved in election year advocacy, and may trigger a new debate about how that should be regulated.

Prisoners' right to vote

Last week, the High Court decided something constitutionally significant. It concluded that courts can, in theory, issue a declaration that the Electoral (Disqualification of Sentenced Prisoners) Amendment Act 2010 is inconsistent with the right to vote under s12(a) of the Bill of Rights Act 1990 even though Parliament is New Zealand's supreme lawmaker.

It was an interlocutory proceeding to deal with a strike-out application from the Crown, so the court has yet to determine the substantive issue, but in making such an application, the Crown put the court's ability to issue such declarations in issue.

Justice Brendan Brown was cautious, noting that not every inconsistency would be suitable for a declaration, and the courts might not wish to second-guess Parliament's view about whether particular legislation is a justified limitation on a particular right - especially when there is no statutory provision creating a power to make such a declaration, as there is in the Human Rights Act. This is despite the fact that a declaration does not invalidate a piece of legislation.

So why bother? Because it sends a strong signal to Parliament that if its legislation does not limit the right to vote, for example, in a reasonable way justified in a free and democratic society, then Parliament is breaching fundamental rights affirmed in our Bill of Rights.

Whether or not you think prisoners should be able to vote, this judgment is worth noting as it can apply to legislation which breaches other civil and political rights affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act. That will affect all of us.

Mai Chen is a partner at Chen Palmer and adjunct professor at the University of Auckland Business School.

- NZ Herald

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