Call to tighten election funding

By Audrey Young

The Labour Party conference yesterday passed policy backing state funding of parties in a way that would not affect their present parliamentary sources of cash.

It also backed a formula that would limit state funding to parties that achieved a certain level of support in the party vote, as yet unspecified.

The remit, moved by the party's ruling New Zealand council, also supported constraints on "third-party" advertising and would ban anonymous donations.

It also wants to circumvent any attempt to get around the ban on anonymous donations by prohibiting individuals from being intermediaries for anybody else's donation.

The resolution was passed unanimously and without debate after party secretary Mike Smith presented the council's report.

Labour has long had policy supporting state funding but the remit expanded on it - and by implication endorsed the work already under way by the Labour-led Government.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen said Labour sought a political system that was inclusive and open and could not be "simply bought and sold by the rich and powerful".

He added: "And that cannot be achieved without the state providing support to the process of democracy itself."

Dr Cullen said later that there was still a lot of work to be done on electoral law reform and the remit would feed into that process.

Despite a call on Friday by union leader Andrew Little for the conference to admit that wrong judgment calls had been made by Labour - it spent $825,000 unlawfully, $447,000 of that on the pledge card the party has produced for the past three elections - no such concession was given.

Instead Prime Minister Helen Clark said in her keynote speech that "transparent funding" had been targeted for attention and that "secret donations and underhand tactics by opponents" had been glossed over.

"The truth is the cards were paid for in the same way they have always been, and to which no exception had been taken before."

But, in fact, spending by the Parliamentary Service Commission is not transparent. Its spending is not subject to any public scrutiny.

The fact that Labour had charged the pledge card to the taxpayer for the previous two elections had never been known. It emerged only during the last campaign. And the fact that the financing of the pledge card had remained undetected is thought to have been one of the reasons Auditor-General Kevin Brady decided to conduct an inquiry into all parties' taxpayer-funded advertising last election.

The Parliamentary Service accounts had been approved by auditors in the previous years but that did not involve line-by-line examination of the expenditure under a specific authorisation of Parliament, as occurred with the inquiry. What had been accepted in previous years was the result of an entirely different process.

Attempting to draw a line under the saga, Helen Clark compared Labour to a great sports team that accepts a bad decision.

"Over the years I've watched our great sports teams play many times and I've seen those refs make some questionable decisions.

"It's felt like that for us in recent times. But I've also seen our great sportspeople accept decisions they didn't agree with and play on to win, and that's what we are going to do," she said to applause.

The foyer of the Rotorua Convention Centre where the conference was held resembled a market day, with stalls set up along the walls to raise money for what Labour calls The Big Whip Around.

Slings and arrows

It has become the traditional role of Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen to close Labour Party conferences and it has also become traditional for him each year to find new and colourful ways to describe his National Party enemies and their leader, Don Brash.

These jibes are taken from his speech in Rotorua yesterday:

Don Brash - In economic terms Brash remains a kind of Klingon clone. No amount of comb-overs can disguise his cerebral lean to the far right.

Gerry Brownlee - Mr Brownlee remains a booming voice box looking for a brain box.

Bill English - No new National liberal, just a seething mass of resentment and warped anger struggling to express a rational view.

John Key - More and more the suspicion is that he is just a pretty face.

Simon Power - Simon Power will always be the future leader of the National Party, at least until he retires.

Judith Collins - Has already gone a screech too far.

Lockwood Smith - If he engages in any more manly overacting, he will burst his speedos.

Murray Mccully - Looks as though he has been left outside in the rain all night.

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