Another dip in our pockets

It might be thought by some taxpayers that after all the fuss stemming from the Labour government's abuse of spending public funds for electoral purposes - it and half a dozen other lesser offenders claimed ignorance - parties might have mended their ways.

Not so. Indeed, such optimism is seriously misplaced. Substantial parliamentary funds are provided to parties by taxpayers through the Parliamentary Commission, in part to help pay for the publication and distribution of explanatory material.

We all receive such information in our letter-boxes from time to time, usually in the name of a local member, and while the rules prevent the material from asking for a vote or for money, they allow party branding.

What you have in your hand may look like a newsletter of sorts, but taxpayers are really directly paying many of the costs of party promotion.

It used to be a lot worse. In 2005, parties claimed ignorance of the difference between information and electioneering, but the Auditor-general thought otherwise and required the parties to refund what were, in some instances, very substantial sums. All but New Zealand First did so with somewhat pained grace.

Legislation was also enacted supposedly to control political advertising; however, it was funded, from the start of each election year. But, as we observed at that time, this was a rank example of leaving the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and the foxes still rule.

National repealed Labour's Electoral Finance Act and the legislation's eventual form was so constructed (despite some opposition) to work in the negative. In other words, political parties can use taxpayer funds for anything that does not specifically ask for votes or money, and with a higher limit than under Labour.

It also imposes restrictions on what "third parties" can spend in attempting to persuade electors on one course or another, and donations to parties can remain secret within certain limits. The legislation contrived one additional hurdle: parties could not use explanatory material funds, sometimes referred to as their "postal allocation", after the beginning of the new official financial year in any election year.

That means the end of June and it also means they must use it all or refund what they have not spent. This is the reason our letter-boxs may have recently been stuffed with leaflets bearing the names of local MPs, and why various campaigns, such as Act New Zealand's for youth rates, have suddenly become visible.

Nor can voters expect the flow to lessen after July 1. Likely, it will get far greater. Although there are legal limits on party election spending, and Parliament will now no longer fund postal advertising, those sanctions apply only in the three months to election day, November 26.

After August 26, the parties and candidates will pay for the material. But that will be in addition to the taxpayer's subsidised broadcasting propaganda. In overturning the 2007 Electoral Finance Act, the challenge facing Parliament was to draft a replacement that grappled comprehensively with models of electoral financing, and which dealt to hidden trusts and promoted transparency.

There was some unanimity with the result, but even so, there was also some thought the original was deliberately draconian so the compromise, when it eventually emerged, would have the appearance of concession. So drafted was the original, for example, it appeared to prevent media coverage of campaigning for the 11 months before election day.

The resulting legislation, and the rules governing Parliamentary-supplied funds, still makes a mockery of supposed attempts at restraint, hence the opportunistic efforts to spend up while the parties can.

The definition of what a "third party" might amount to is also becoming cloudy given recent publicity by proponents for and against changes to MMP, which will be part of this year's poll. And how much public money was used by the Labour Party to fund the sudden appearance of so many of its MPs during the campaigning in the recent Te Tai Tokerau by-election?

Voters need assurance that secret influence cannot be brought to bear through private donations during a campaign and this has been the principal argument for state-funding of parties. On the other hand, why should taxpayers fund what are essentially private political clubs at all?


Add a Comment