Editorial: Absurdity of vigilance already felt

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Barely a week into the year and the Electoral Finance Act has bared its teeth. The body charged with policing the act, the Electoral Commission, has contacted a 21-year-old about his website, named "dontvotelabour". He was told he had to put his name and address on the site.

Is this going to be the story of the year: constant vigilance of any form of public speech to ensure it complies with all 148 clauses of the act? How absurd that New Zealanders can no longer make a political statement in an election year without satisfying a welter of petty regulation.

When the Herald first raised its voice against this prospect, some said we overstated the threat to free speech. The financial restrictions applied only to expensive speech, they pointed out, and exempted several forms of expression including editorial comment such as this, and web postings by individuals with personal blogs.

But exemptions are never quite the same as freedom. Exemptions carry conditions that have to be satisfied. Andrew Moore, whose site has come to the commission's attention, would prefer not to put his home address on his site partly to protect his family. Why does he have to?

The commission explains that an "authorising" statement is required on exempted material just as on paid political advertising. The commission does not explain why that should be; it has an educational function in other electoral matters but in this role its job is to apply the law.

The Justice Minister expects the commission to "use common sense", but how is it supposed to know whether anonymity on the web is within the law's tolerance? It would seem more important that Mr Moore identify himself as an Act Party member if we must know who is behind every political utterance in election year. But evidently he does not have to declare his affiliation. It is a small mercy.

Probably the only way the commission can find the bounds of common sense is to bring test cases in the courts. Mr Moore had not put his name and address on the site yesterday and says he will not. He says he is willing to be prosecuted for an offence which carries a $10,000 fine under the act.

Those who delight in absurdity could have a field day from now until the election. One sharemarket wag has applied for registration under the act as a "third party" for the purposes of election advertising and believes that if everyone did the same it would make nonsense of the law.

But it is on the web, a new frontier of attempted regulation, that Labour's red tape will be most resented. The act's restrictions on election material expressly exempts "the publication by an individual, on a non-commercial basis, on the internet of his or her personal political views ... "

Bloggers might have little difficulty fitting that definition but they will need to be aware that should their site acquire more than one author or, heaven forbid, make some money in some way from their political observations, the speech patrol could be down on them.

It is outrageous that they even need to concern themselves with such rules. When people come to wonder what has happened to a freedom they once took for granted, the answer is seldom a single, memorable edict. It is more often a hundred trifling rules, requirements and restrictions, each defensible within the logic of the law but together oppressive in their effect.

Fortunately the Government's attempt to monitor political expression will not long outlast its lease on power. But if the commission continues as it has started, the spectacle will be ridiculous.

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