Anti-democratic bill would cut smaller parties out

by Ben Thomas and David W Young

A police officer overheard talking to another at the Wellington march against the Electoral Finance Bill said, "it's a very good crowd."

He didn't mean it was large. The few hundred stragglers in Wellington were a far cry from the 2000 who took to the streets in Auckland on Sunday. He meant that the orderly group of mainly right-of-centre protesters were very different from the recent rowdy protests full of anti-establishment sentiment the thin blue line has faced.

The backlash against the Electoral Reform Bill has involved the fourth estate, business and lobby groups. The government refused to put the revised bill out for further consultation following the select committee process.

There's a lot about the bill that seems ever so slightly surreal.

The government thinks opponents to the bill just suffer from a failure to "interpretate." This novel verb coined by new Justice Minister Annette King apparently refers to the way the "law of common sense" - another new jurisprudential term introduced by Ms King this week -can be applied to ignore the worst excesses of the bill in terms of extending state regulation over protest chants and megaphones.

It's a measure of the sheer poverty of the bill's drafting that King, regarded as the safest pair of hands in Labour's caucus, has been made to look every bit as foolish as her hapless predecessor Mark Burton defending it.

For a bill supposedly concerned with "transparency," the process has been a remarkably closed shop. The National select committee minority report confirms that the government planned to introduce the bill to Parliament the week of Monday, November 12 (as predicted in NBR on November 9). Nonetheless, the Labour majority on the select committee helped keep the public in the dark, maintaining the bill would not come back to the House until next year.

Who did Labour consult?

The National report also notes that the motions put forward to change the bill were caucused ahead of time by the Labour (and presumably Green and NZ First members of the committee) and sprung on the National members. The obvious question is: who was the party consulting outside the select committee?

There's no question the government has consulted on the bill heavily over the last few months. But with whom?

The original cabinet paper from Mark Burton was changed significantly by the time the widely panned bill was first presented to Parliament. Who did the rough surgery on the original bill and what were their motives for doing so?

Prime Minister Helen Clark hinted at the answer when she said a ban on anonymous donations had been excised from the cabinet paper because it would make it harder for parties to run election campaigns.

Now restrictions on anonymous donations have re-appeared. So to ask the obvious question: who was consulted this time? And why has the limit for receiving anonymous cash been set at $240,000 over three years? That figure bears no relationship to the other limits in the bill in terms of transparency.

The changes have helped the government attempt a neat contortionist trick. After being on the back foot for weeks thanks to editorial writers and protesters, now the prime minister can grandstand on the party's desire to "get the 'Hollow Men' out of politics."

Spending doesn't matter

There are genuine concerns about the role of anonymous donors in New Zealand politics for the very reason that their influence on politicians and policy can't be measured. But in terms of the influence of money on voting, the results are measurable and unalarming.

From right-ish popular economist Steven Levitt (author of Freakonomics) to Alliance-supporting political studies lecturer Bryce Edwards, experts conclude that spending has at best a marginal impact on popular support.

The intrusion of the Exclusive Brethren into national elections proves money can buy elections about as well as Paris Hilton shows money can buy taste.

The beneficiaries were Labour as a party and as a government. Trying to spitefully punish the Brethren and National further - through the rewriting of electoral finance law - was greedy and will really have the effect of shutting out alternative voices. Labour is now engaged in what amounts to an anti-competitive cartel in the marketplace for ideas, with other parties joined in on the conspiracy.

Parties in Parliament already have a massive advantage over the rag-tag wannabes who fail to register with the public. The Electoral Finance Bill gives parliamentary parties an even bigger advantage.

At first brush, this seems not to matter. Those who voted in 2005 for Democrats for Social Credit, Libertarianz, Direct Democracy Party, 99 MP Party, The Republic of New Zealand Party and One NZ Party would fail to elect a single MP even if they all moved into one electorate and voted en masse.

Would Act have got in?

But think about it another way: so far only the Act Party has managed to be elected to Parliament without the advantage of a sitting MP. The party's transition to Parliament seems impossible to replicate in a post-Electoral Finance Bill era.

In Act's case, a number of factors were in play: associations with the iconic Roger Douglas and recent MP Richard Prebble were essential. But so was marketing and, yes, money.

Act was not originally a political party. It began life as a ginger group on tax and devolved social policy - the Association of Consumers and Taxpayers.

The Electoral Finance Bill defines as "election advertising" anything that encourages voting for or against not just a particular party but also a particular "type of party." As a group that supported low-tax political parties, the association would have fallen foul of the law and its advertising hemmed in.

When Act changed from ginger group to political party, its policies and ideas attracted relatively little media coverage. Strategists at the beginning complained Sue Bradford had more cameras on her protesting outside Act's launch than were inside to hear Roger Douglas' low tax platform. Money didn't buy votes for Act in 1996 but it did get valuable attention for its policy platforms.

The incentives for any similar ginger group to set up will now be extremely small, knowing that it will be restricted to running four full-page newspaper advertisements in any election year ($120,000, the limit for third party campaigns).

Furthermore, the new campaign period of restricted spending over a whole year means then-leader Richard Prebble would have been hardpressed to run his impressive local campaign to win the Wellington Central constituency.

And this is the crux of the argument. Democracy is wider than just the contest between National and Labour. Supporters of the Electoral Finance Bill have to be prepared to say that the entry of the Act Party to Parliament has been harmful, rather than helpful, to democracy. It's a charge that can't be sustained - even if minor, troublesome parties like Act don't seem to the government of the day like a "good crowd."

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