I couldn’t let the last of the year slip away without a fond farewell to the good old Electoral Finance Act.
Cast your minds back to where it all began. The 2005 election, where National’s lies and dodgy dealings with third party lobbyists cost them both the election, and their leader (when Don Brash resigned in the face of the public outcry). Trying to close the loopholes, Labour put forward the Electoral Finance Bill. The first draft was flawed. Overall there is no doubt that Labour bungled the process. But the final version was acceptable, and the Act was passed by the majority of parties in Parliament.
During this process the attacks mounted on the EFA were extraordinarily feral. The “respectable” face of the crusade was the Herald’s “Democracy Under Attack” campaign. Taking the fight to the gutter, was National blogger DPF and his series of billboards comparing the government to a range of brutal dictators. And let’s not forget the rent a mob demonstrations and the perfectly valid and reasonable comparisons of Helen Clark to Adolf Hitler. Ahhh – good times.
Fast forward to the National government of today. Last week their replacement Act was passed. Legal academic and constitutional expert Andrew Geddis at Pundit sums up:
[On December 15th] Parliament once again passed the Electoral Finance Act – repackaged as the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill …
Those compromises also have resulted in a set of rules that are less prescriptive than the Electoral Finance Act’s were. So, the period of pre-election regulation is much shorter than under the Electoral Finance Act – dialed back from up-to 11 months to about 3 months. “Third parties”, now called “promoters”, can spend up to $300,000 on election advertisements during this period – up from the $120,000 cap that applied previously. There’s been an increase in how much political parties and candidates can spend on their own campaigns, to take account for the fact these limits hadn’t changed since 1996. Donors to political parties can give up to $15,000 without having to identify themselves publicly, up from the former threshold of $10,000.
So, all-in-all, the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill is less restrictive of campaign spending than was the Electoral Finance Act. But, and here’s the germ of truth I referred to earlier, it is more restrictive than was the law prior to 2008. And the restrictions it applies differ from the Electoral Finance Act more in degree than substance.
Most importantly, the new legislation accepts the proposition that anyone who wishes to involve themselves in the election campaign with the aim of influencing the outcome of the vote ought to be subject to financial limits. So it doesn’t matter if you are a political party, a candidate, an outraged individual, a pressure group or a labour/business organisation – if you want to tell people how they should vote come election day, then you should get a say … but not too much of a say.
So the Nats’ replacement has tweaked some thresholds, but it retains the principles (and much of the actual substance) of Labour’s EFA. Is the Herald running “Democracy Under Attack” banners? No. Is DPF on TV pushing his dictator billboards? No. Are wealthy bagmen spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to fake grass roots concern? No.
If the EFA was actually a bad law then the same people who campaigned against it then would be campaigning against it now. But they aren’t, and that silence speaks volumes. That silence tells us that the new Act, like the old EFA, are perfectly reasonable documents. That silence tells us that the real attack on democracy was not the EFA, but the crusade against it. That silence tell us that we have witnessed one of the most extraordinarily cynical and feral propaganda campaigns of our recent political history.