John Roughan: Rich has become a four-letter word

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We are in the last, cantankerous, pre-Christmas weeks of the year. "Scumbag," Michael Cullen calls across the House to John Key. "Rich prick."

Rich? What sort of mind regards "rich" as a term of abuse?

Next month, when politics is on holiday and Cullen is lying in the sun somewhere, he will remember that remark and wince. Not because he has suddenly ceased to resent wealth but because he realises, too late, how revealing the comment was and how typical of his party these past few weeks.

Somewhere high on a mountain, Helen Clark may be seized by the same thought. It may come to her with a sudden chill that Labour has let its contemptible side suffer too much exposure for the sake of the Electoral Finance Bill.

Many are wondering whether the bill could bring the Government down at the election late next year. I've been saying I don't think so. Voters won't miss the usual advertising of pressure groups through the year because those campaigns have seldom had much impact.

I think it sad that a dimension of politics will be needlessly shut down - less by the spending limit than by the tedious registration and financial red tape that any group will face if it wants to promote an issue to the electorate - but I suppose there will be bigger concerns in mind by election day.

Maybe, though, I've underestimated the subliminal effect of the electoral finance debate. The lasting impression left in the public mind may be that those in power are a party of sullen left-wing losers after all.

Labour draws its MPs nowadays from quite a narrow range of professions, predominantly teaching and academic work in fields of social theory quite foreign to the world view of most people.

Until the past few weeks, the leadership has done quite well to project the Government as a group who have left their undergraduate attitudes well behind and are comfortable with money, business and the creation of wealth.

The Finance Minister has not been able to bring himself to cut the taxes of those who provide him with most of his surplus revenue but he has not, until now, let slip his real feelings about them.

Not even the rich probably realise exactly how much the Government's revenue relies on them. In the last financial year, people earning over $100,000 (just 3 per cent of taxpayers) were to provide 27 per cent of the state's income tax. Fully half the revenue from personal taxation was to come from just 12 per cent of taxpayers.

These people bear a totally disproportionate burden of public expenses yet there is said to be something wrong about them using their money as they might to try to influence public decisions.

The governing parties have just passed a law allowing themselves to use more of these people's taxes for party electioneering and, next week, they will enact the bill to severely restrict privately financed political expression in election years.

I doubt most people would be as horrified as Nicky Hager if they'd read a party's emails and discovered that some wealthy people quietly make political donations for policies they think the country needs.

Hager and his ilk might be surprised to discover how disinterested rich donors really are. A few months ago when it seemed Labour might outlaw anonymous donations, the corporate view I heard was, "good, now they might leave us alone".

Both major parties use anonymity to persuade companies and individuals who want no political association that donating is their civic duty. There is precious little for donors to gain personally from policies to improve a market economy.

Yet Labour has gone out on a limb for a bill, enduring all the opprobrium of the past few weeks, for a bill that will stifle the little privately financed argument we hear in election year and turn the poor Electoral Commission into the sole legal conduit for secret donations.

To Labour, free speech means only unpaid speech. Money must not be allowed to produce unequal speech. Yet money alone does not swing elections. If it did, National would never lose and we would not have MMP.

The illiberalism of the left is more fearful than the right's because it does not recognise itself. When Labour sees unwelcome sentiments in Tui billboards or industry advertising, it hears only money talking because it cannot credit the view as valid.

It is enough for the law to require that contributors to public debate be identified, whether they contribute through donations to political parties or run their own campaign.

If we know who they are, it shouldn't matter how much they spend, what they say or who they support.

Most of us are not mesmerised by wealth or worried about it.

I worry much more that people who resent the rich are bound to leave us poor.

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