Electoral funding: paying the piper

Under existing law, parties intending to contest a general election can apply to the Electoral Commission for both time and money in support of campaigning.

The allocation of time can be on programmes broadcast by state-owned media, such as Television New Zealand and Radio New Zealand, and the money can be spent on campaign advertising.

The entitlement is provided for by the Broadcasting Act. Applicants must meet certain criteria and meet an application deadline, something Hone Harawira failed to do this year when seeking an allocation for his new Mana Party.

Generally, the commission appears to use as a guide the support indicated for various contestants at the previous general election. Funding for this year's poll was announced at the beginning of the month, to the usual chorus of complaint.

The amount of time made available is not within the commission's hands, but is determined by the broadcasters. This year, that will amount to 72 minutes for opening addresses and 60 minutes for closing addresses shared among all allocated parties on both services.

Nor does the commission determine how much money in total it will allocate. That is determined by the Minister of Justice, and must be the same amount as the previous election unless changed by Parliament - $3.2 million this year, including GST.

Parties are not allowed to spend their own funds on broadcasting time, whether or not they have received an allocation from the commission, although individual candidates can promote themselves by this means.

This year, 15 parties will get a share, the bulk ($1.15 million each) to National and Labour, with the Greens a distant third with $300,000 and the Maori Party and Act New Zealand, $160,000 each. It is plainly remarkable that United Future, with one MP, and New Zealand First, with none, will receive $100,000 each.

The allocation has again raised questions as to whether the system is fair, and whether taxpayer funding should even be given to political parties for campaigning purposes. The Maori Party has cause for complaint in view of its allocation being $90,000 less (with less broadcast time) than three years ago.

It had argued for special consideration on the grounds that it had the capacity to address Maori electors in Maori in Maori constituencies that needed much effort to persuade people to cast a vote.

While the commission might regard itself as having a task designed to please no applicant, the grievance of the Maori Party, which is, after all, represented in Parliament and in Government, should be seen in the context of the commission also giving $20,000 each to the Alliance, the Kiwi Party, Libertarianz, the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party, the New Zealand Sovereignty Party, the Coalition of New Zealanders Party, the World Peace Party and the Pirate Party, none of whom will be represented after November 26.

The use of taxpayer funds for what is essentially a private purpose has been controversial in recent years because of its abuse.

The problem with it is the politicians themselves make the rules, and it suits all of them to dip into the public purse at any opportunity to further their political ends.

The scandalous use by the parties of parliamentary funds (a separate source from those provided by the Electoral Commission) resulted in electoral law changes that seem likely to have no real effect in preventing parties from misusing such funds to pay for advertising material, however lightly disguised. It will be recalled that seven parties unlawfully spent $1 million of such monies in 2005.

New rules supposedly distinguish between parliamentary activities and electioneering activities, but the interpretation of "electioneering" has been tinkered with which will enable sufficient numbers of politicking horses to be ridden to satisfy most who aspire to be re-elected.

Political parties are able to, and do, raise substantial private funds, and MMP has given even minorities the opportunity to be represented in the House. It follows that a reappraisal on using scarce public funds for political campaigning purposes should be pursued. Those who advocate the state funding of parties need to look at the recent record of the abuse by parties of such funds as are available, implicit and explicit.

Claims that self-funded parties would lead to corruption implies that only incompetent or dishonest politicians would be elected, and once elected, surrounded in office by a conspiracy of corrupt public servants. It is not beyond the competence of Parliament to limit party self-funding and to require all donors to be identified.


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