Key: This will be the first thing to go

By Audrey Young

National leader John Key said last night the first thing an incoming National Government would do would be to repeal the Electoral Finance Bill which he said would cost Prime Minister Helen Clark her job.

But Labour says the bill protects New Zealanders' rights to free and fair elections and will regulate advertising, not speech, and political donations.

The bill imposes a new regulatory regime on political advertising by third parties, setting wide definitions of what an election advertisement is, and setting spending limits.

It extends the regulated period from three months before an election to January 1 of an election year - almost a third of the electoral cycle. The bill also exempts any parliamentary spending by MPs from the bill.

Mr Key said the bill was a shambles and it was designed to "screw the scrum" in favour of Labour.

"The rights of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who want to participate no longer count," he said during the committee stages debate in Parliament last night.

"Well I have a message for the very out of touch Prime Minister of New Zealand: This bill cost her minister [former Justice Minister Mark Burton] his job ...

this act will cost the Prime Minister her job in 2008."

He said if any part of the Labour Party thought the issue was going away in 2008, it was not.

"New Zealanders are sick of being told what to do. They are sick of having Labour control every part of their life and they are sick of being told whether they can participate in an election or not.

"I say to Labour Party members, pick up the New Zealand Herald, read the editorial, for once in your lives recognise that you are not bigger than the people of New Zealand.

"I make this promise to New Zealanders: when Labour is gone at the end of 2008 the first thing National will do is repeal this legislation. It's gone.

"We won't indulge ourselves in the kind of behaviour we have seen by the Labour Party, we won't write self-serving legislation. We will consult. We will actually act in the best interests of New Zealand.

"We won't use Nicky Hager and his second-rate book as some sort of compass for the way New Zealand's democracy should be run because it's a disgrace."

Associate Justice Minister Rick Barker kicked off the debate for the Government and had with him copies of the leaflets produced last election by members of the Exclusive Brethren and a copy of The Hollow Men, the book of emails of former National leader Don Brash leading up to the 2005 election.

Mr Barker said the bill would regulate advertising, not speech.

"Freedom of speech is not necessarily the freedom to buy as much advertising as you can."

He said there was no argument to cap party and candidate spending and leave third parties unregulated "when they behaved as badly as they did in the last election. Secret donations, secret addresses, secret agendas but all done in collusion with the National Party."

The Exclusive Brethren had wanted to spend $1.2 million last election supporting National, Mr Barker said, waving around copies of anti-Labour and Green pamphlets.

"Look at them. 'Change the Government', they said. It was all done in collusion with the National Party."

Mr Barker said it was unrealistic for third parties to run campaigns with limitless amounts of money.

"The unions have advertised in the elections, no question about that. But the unions have always put their name on it, said who they were, and what their purpose was.

"The National Party's friends did not do that at all. They attempted to steal the last election by stealth and deception. This bill is going to say that that is not going to be the case."

The bill also provided for transparency for those who wanted to get involved in politics.

"It says that anyone who wants to get involved in politics can do, but you have to say who you are and what you are going to do."

Winston Peters, New Zealand First leader, attacked the Herald as "hypocrites" for not having campaigned in 1993 when New Zealand First had been denied the right to advertise on radio or television.

"Did the Herald have a campaign about that? Did they write one word about it? No. That's the kind of hypocrites they are because they are foreign-owned," Mr Peters said.

"And they better get one thing straight. Their foreign ownership won't run the 2008 campaign.

"They think these people who sit there in the boardrooms of the New Zealand Herald office ... will run the 2008 election. Well I've got news for them and it is all bad."

Mr Peters told Mr Key that to lead a political party, you had to have stamina.

"You can't just go out like a show pony for one month or two months or three months. You've got to go the whole 2008.

"On 1 January the campaign starts. Either you're up to it or you're not."

Act leader Rodney Hide said the attacks on National showed that the bill was "mired in partisan politics".

"This bill isn't about a fair election. It's about an attack by one party on another."

The bill had been hastily cobbled together, the public did not want it, it had been radically changed and now the minister had come to the House with a raft of further amendments.

"Is this any way to run a democracy in an open and free society and I say ... that can't be the case.

"Listen to what the people are saying about this bill ... We've not just had the Herald say that this bill is a dog, we've had every newspaper in the country say that the bill is a dog."

Justice Minister Annette King arrived late for the debate because she had been at the opening of redevelopments at Kaitaia Hospital.

She said the Government had promised to bring in more transparent financing of elections "to stay away with the sneak approach we have seen, the back room deals that we have seen in the past, to actually stop National from screwing the scrum, and they are old scrum screwers from a long way back.

"We want to shine the light on those who believe that money can buy anything, including democracy."

National MP Gerry Brownlee raised the issue of the new limit of $1000 being imposed on receipt of anonymous donations.

Any anonymous donation over that amount will have to be channelled through the Electoral Commission.

"If no New Zealander goes into the ballot box having to declare how they vote, why should any New Zealander have to say what small amount they want to give to any particular political party," he said.

In response to an interjection asking about the trusts that the majority of National's donations are channelled through, Mr Brownlee said: "What about the unions?"

No one asked the unions who had funded them, he said.

"What we are seeing here tonight is a bill driven by the paranoia of the Labour Party, not a paranoia about where the money comes from but a paranoia and a fear that they may be tipped out of Government at the next election."

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