A powerful west Auckland organisation has strongly denied that it is engaged in what its opponents call "blatant and shameful electioneering".
The accusations arise from the Auckland local body elections, amid an ongoing debate about the alcohol monopoly held by the Waitakere and Portage Licensing Trusts (most often called the Trusts).
Grassroots organisation West Auckland Trusts Action Group, which has long called for changes to the existing rules, claims The Trusts are trying to influence the local elections by greatly increasing their marketing spend in the lead up to the ballot.
The Action Group is particularly vested in the result of this election, having put forward six candidates and has openly campaigned for a referendum on the Trusts' monopoly rights.
Action Group spokesman Nick Smale told the Herald the level of advertising and PR far exceeds anything a standard candidate could afford.
According to Smale, the marketing blitz from the Trusts since July includes:
• Marketing of the Trusts' flagship grant scheme, the Million Dollar Mission.
• A full-page advertisement in the Western Leader (August 1, 2019).
• Publishing a 20-page colour magazine "All About Your Trusts".
• An increase in Facebook marketing activity.
• Commencing corporate advertising on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Neighbourly.
• Email newsletter marketing.
• Delivering unaddressed mail to households in "west Auckland".
The Action Group is concerned about this activity because of the impact it might have on public sentiment in the lead up to the local election.
"If Auckland Council launched an advertising blitz using ratepayers' money to praise the achievements and future plans of the incumbent candidates in the lead-up to the election, there would rightfully be an outcry," Smale said.
"The licensing trusts are doing exactly that and it appears there is nothing to stop them."
Simon Wickham, the Trusts chief executive, took exception to claims it was trying to influence the election, saying that these marketing efforts are in line with the Trusts' commitment to communicating directly with the public.
"One of the key criticisms from the Trusts Action Group is that we don't communicate enough, it is hard to comprehend that they are now complaining about us communicating with the public," Wickham said.
"We have been using social media to communicate with the public for a number of years and we take care not to promote candidates, parties or individuals at election time.
"The household letter, advertisement and Trusts guide were all produced as part of our annual reporting and our improving communication with our community."
Wickham further explained that the Trusts operate customer-facing businesses, which need to be marketed as any other retail enterprises would.
"It's disappointing that the Trusts Action Group is choosing to frame our efforts to communicate more as a negative when they have been demanding it from us themselves," Wickham said.
The Action Group lodged a complaint with the Department of Internal Affairs, but correspondence from a representative said that the marketing activity described by the Action Group falls outside of the election period and doesn't seem to advocate election of particular candidates.
Smale concedes that the Trusts' activity falls short of endorsing candidates, but believes the broader messaging ties in with candidate campaigning, which includes statements such as "Keep the Trusts".
Smale says that he would like to see more done to ensure that the Trusts maintain a neutral position during the election period but is worried that these changes won't come soon enough to make a difference.
"Sitting members should not be afforded an advantage over other candidates," Smale said.