King puts up a better fight but is on the back foot

By John Armstrong

For those warning that the poorly drafted Electoral Finance Bill will have unintended and undemocratic consequences, Labour's new Justice Minister yesterday offered her own unique, but somewhat eyebrow-raising solution: the Annette King Law of Common Sense.

It does not sound particularly comforting nor especially convincing. But it does have a No 8 fencing wire sort of pragmatic Kiwi fix-it charm about it.

Essentially Ms King's maxim goes like this: if the law is an ass, then apply the law of common sense. If the law could be interpreted as producing silly outcomes, then assume those were not what the law intended.

Then, just to make everyone feel really good about the state of the country's electoral laws, Ms King also told Parliament that the existing Electoral Act had loopholes "you could drive a bulldozer through".

The bulldozer Ms King was planning on driving yesterday, however, was the one she had aimed squarely at Bill English on National's benches

As National's chief spokesman on the Electoral Finance Bill, Bill English has already seen off the previous holder of the Justice portfolio, Mark Burton.

Ms King is a far more formidable adversary, than her quietly spoken predecessor.

She does not possess a mean bone in her body. Nevertheless, she is a hugely experienced front-bencher who will, if necessary, mix it with the best or worst of them in Parliament.

She is almost impossible to unsettle. However, in this case, Ms King starts from a very long way behind, while Mr English knows this confused and confusing legislation backwards.

And it showed yesterday as she and Mr English clashed in a fiery exchange which frequently saw her replies to his questions drowned out by barracking from National MPs.

National's deputy leader focused on a new sub-clause inserted in the bill, which was reported back to Parliament on Monday following select committee scrutiny.

The addition to the original Bill has further broadened the definition of "publication" of an "election advertisement" to such an extent that even conversations in the street about politics could fall foul of the law.

Mr English raised the scenario of a National Party canvasser knocking on doors in a suburban street. Immediately a door opened, the canvasser would have to state his or her name and address, and then show the householder authorisation from his or her party's financial agent. At that point, the canvasser could say "good morning".

Quick as a flash, Ms King retorted that the likely response on sighting someone from the National Party would be "buzz off", before rubbishing any notion that canvassing for votes amounted to what Mr English was claiming .

But Mr English suggested Ms King read the legislation under her name, which also now required protest placards have the names and addresses of those holding them inscribed upon them.

Ms King countered that such a requirement was arguably already in the Electoral Act. No one had been prosecuted because the law of common sense had been applied.

But Mr English was having difficulty finding this new law in his copy of the Electoral Finance Bill. What Ms King was effectively saying was "the law will only work if we ignore it".

Ms King cited his scenarios as "bordering on the ridiculous".

This time he went one better. Coming from the Minister of Justice, her talk of applying the law of common sense was simply "bordering on the reckless".

For all her skills, Ms King is not a lawyer.

Maybe Labour would make some headway on this bill if it had a lawyer in charge of it.

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