Labour's Revenge – ODT Editorial 20/12/2007

On 20/12/2007 the Otago Daily Times ran this editorial and cartoon. It is only in a dead tree version and a loyal reader forwarded it on so that we all may enjoy. This makes it a clean sweep of the major daily newspapers opposing the Bill and now the Act. Labour will find it very difficult to push its message through the newspapers from now on.

[quote]Labour's revenge

ONCE UPON a time, when the church plate was handed around the congregation,most people made their contributions openly, in small change or high denomination note; similarly, on the marae, koha used mainly to be in cash or kind and everyone could see what it was and, if so inclined, judge their neighbour accordingly. Not so today, where the concealing envelope is the preferred choice.

There is a parallel with the debate about the Electoral Finance Bill. Labour argues that in a model democracy, all should be open, voters should know the identity of all the people and organisations contributing to help political party coffers bloom; that if people and organisations do not wish to be so identified, they should not give. If this was Labour's true objective – the evidence is not convincing – then the Bill Labour and its allies passed in Parliament on Tuesday fails to meet it; and may actually produce the opposite, and anti-democratic, effect.

Maori Party MP Hone Harawira had it about right: "If this was only about election finances, then why did this Labour Government push through special legislation to validate their $800,000 over-spend at the last election, rather than let the legal process take its natural course . . . why didn't this Labour Government ask the Auditor-general and the Electoral Commission to present a range of options for public consideration, and presentation to the House. . . how come the Human Rights Commission says this Bill is a dramatic assault on fundamental human rights – freedom of expression, and the right to participate in the election process . . . how come the Human Rights Commission says that even this rewritten; flea-bitten, revised and patched-up version should still have been given back to the public for full discussion and debate?"

Although the Bill has been much-amended, the most objectionable aspects to it remain. Originally, Labour claimed it wanted to destroy the ability of secret trusts to help fund election parties and, by implication, "influence" policy-making; the inference was deliberately cast in a sinister light for this was Labour's twofold revenge – against being found out over its pledge card rort, and against the campaign by members of the Exclusive Brethren, against Labour and Greens in 2005. By establishing a $10,000 barrier, the Bill fails to achieve even this intention. Labour believes the Bill is -essential to stop wealthy individuals or organisations "buying" next year's election; more honest, in fact, to prevent the National Party from fully expending its substantial election-fighting fund. There is no other rational reason why the Bill insists on the election campaign commencing on New Year's Day.

By limiting the amount so-called "third parties" can spend on political campaign activities of any kind – be it support or opposition, saving the whales or completing Dunedin's motorway – the Bill is anti-democratic for it will tend to restrain and discourage dissent from those who wish to make such causes influential in electoral terms by advocating for or against political parties or candidates; it will thus tend to weigh the balance further in favour of incumbent governments in election years. Nor will the Bill prevent unlimited party donations from overseas persons, from which Labour in particular benefited in 2005, nor from organisations with a relationship with the Labour Party, such as trade unions.

The Minister of Justice, Annette King, told Parliament at the second reading of the Bill the Government did not want to see "the Americanisation of election campaigns, where elections become something fought through the courts rather than focused on record, policy and leadership . . ." But this legislation' guarantees such an outcome; even setting aside the likelihood that one or more of the established parties will feel bound to test the provisions of the Bill in the courts, there are bound to be individuals or organisations inclined to have it tested, as former Labour Prime Minister Mike Moore believes, "just for the pure hell of it".

The Bill's definition of election "advertisement" alone is still so wide as to invite it. As the deputy leader of the Opposition, Bill English, remarked, next year's election will be as much about the rules for campaigning as about the future of the country. The price of "free speech", it seems, is bad law endlessly litigated.

Every political party engaged in this debate has been in self-protective mode, just as they were when refusing voters the right to reassess MMP after 1999. In seeking "transparency" in election funding, itself a very desirable objective, half measures are apparently an acceptable compromise to this Parliament. They are not; in that sense also, the Bill is anti-democratic.

This is a Parliament unable, unwilling, perhaps incapable, of devising a measured, fair and inclusive response to electoral spending law.

In the House, Mrs King repeatedly relied on what she called "the law of common sense" (whatever that might be) to define it for her. If the "law of common sense" is to guarantee our basic freedoms against political manipulation, then we are indeed in peril. The most offensive aspect of this legislation, however, is the Government and its supporters' distrust of the people: that we voters are too stupid to recognise "undue influence", too ready to believe any propaganda thrust in our faces.[/quote]


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