Editorial: Speak now, or hold your peace in 2008

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The Herald has today, for the second time in a month, run a front page editorial calling for the Electoral Finance Bill to be scrapped, saying it is an attack on democracy

There will be no winners if the Electoral Finance Bill is passed into law this week. The Labour Party will have revised the electoral rules to suit itself, but that will be a pyrrhic victory if it loses the next election, as polls suggest it will. The National Party has promised to repeal the bill as soon as it gets the chance.

Thus our electoral law is reduced to a game of political ping-pong, a game that would not have started had the Government done the right thing from the beginning.

Even its friend the Green Party has been urging it to refer its concerns about election finance to an independent body that could recommend changes to the law if necessary from an impartial position.

But the Government has ploughed ahead, making minimal changes to the bill's clamp on political expression from January 1 until after election day next year, and adding an extraordinary new dimension, making the Electoral Commission the vehicle for disbursements of parties' secret donations. That drastic sudden proposal alone should tell the Government this is not the way to make constitutional change.

Unless the Greens and United Future act on their reservations and withhold support for the bill this week it will pass. And they will be as guilty as Labour and New Zealand First for the offence to free speech.

From next month until a probable November election, any person or group wanting to promote an issue of concern would face a legal and bureaucratic minefield. For the right to spend their money they would need to register as a "third party", file declarations about donors and expenses and keep within a spending limit of $120,000, just 5 per cent of the amount MPs' parties may spend.

The regulations would apply to any material that might encourage people to vote or not vote for "a type of party or a type of candidate" described by reference to views, positions or policies even if the party or candidate is not named.

As revised, the bill seems to catch everything from a billboard to a bull-horn, but the Justice Minister says "common sense" will apply. Whose?

The self-serving electoral fix is being done now in the hope it might be forgotten at an election 11 months hence. Those 11 months will be quieter than they would have been without the electoral finance gag. Labour's union allies will be as constrained as any moneyed group agreeing with National. Public debate will be constrained and our politics poorer.

Money does not win elections unless the message it is financing strikes a popular chord. Labour is legislating in fear of messages it might not like. At the same time, it has given parties in Parliament the right to use public funds for purposes the Auditor-General ruled improper at the last election.

The country should not stand for this. It is not unduly susceptible to paid campaigns. The bill is an insult to our intelligence as well as our rights. Even now, at the 11th hour, it can be stopped and sent to an impartial panel. Let's hope the common sense outside Parliament can prevail.

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