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Electioneering on the public dime?

Written By: - Date published: 9:50 am, June 29th, 2011 - 48 comments
Categories: election 2011, election funding, national - Tags: , ,

Ahh the Nats. Nothing if not screaming hypocrites. Audrey Young writes:

Nats, Act spend up large with your cash

National and Act, the parties that kicked up a stink in Opposition about Labour’s taxpayer-funded election advertising, are engaging in their own taxpayer-funded binge this month.

The aim is to spend all the money they are entitled to before the financial year ends on Thursday. … So National is spending up big time around the country, producing leaflets, in the names of MPs, on last month’s Budget, with a survey attached.

The survey is clearly intended as an election tool. Its questions include asking voters which party they support and it tries to ascertain if they are swing voters.

National is refusing to say how many leaflets have gone out or how much they cost. The ads are heavily branded with party logos and look no different from electioneering ads. The spending is not unlawful because Parliament’s rules allow anything as long as it doesn’t solicit votes or money.

The formula under which parties are funded to run their parliamentary and electorate offices (including promotional material) gave National, with 58 MPs, $7.1 million to spend in the past year and Act, with five MPs, $631,000. …

The last Labour Government undertook a similar advertising binge about its last Budget at the same time in the electoral cycle but its spending had to count as official election advertising because the whole year to the election was then counted as regulated.

Just to be clear, I’m not opposed to the government spending public money communicating its policies (though I do have reservations as below). My main reaction here is to the pure hypocrisy of the grandstanding hysteria of National (and poodles) while they were in opposition – knowing full well that they would do exactly the same in government. An anonymous editorial in The Herald this morning also takes the Nats to task for “sending voters a message that its methods are no better than those it once condemned”.

That hypocrisy aside, is there a problem here? Political insider John Pagani doesn’t think so – see his piece “It’s a great idea for parties to spend your money on policy pamplets [sic]”. Commentator Bryce Edwards disagrees, suggesting that Pagani’s position shows “how out-of-touch the political class is”. Not sure how Bryce expects the government to communicate with the public though!

In my opinion, yes, there is a problem, but it’s not the one in the headlines (public money for advertising). One obviously relevant issue is the proximity to the election. Because the Nats have shortened the regulated period to three months their current spending will not count against their 2011 election spending limits. Pretty “convenient” for them.

But the main problem of course is the long standing, impossible issue of what it is that constitutes “electioneering”. Recall that “The spending is not unlawful because Parliament’s rules allow anything as long as it doesn’t solicit votes or money”. That definition is clear, but narrow. It allows parties to spend on what is clearly election related material. But should it? Should the definition of what is allowed be tightened? If so, how?

48 comments on “Electioneering on the public dime? ”

  1. Anthony 1

    I quite enjoyed how the front page Herald article yesterday featured a picture of John Boscawen for some reason, not John Key…. Gotta protect that brand aye.

  2. ianupnorth 2

    I actually raised this issue a while back; a young Wellington friend of mine tagged the local Nat MP in a Facebook photo of those leaflets, suggesting the budget has done nothing productive for him or his family. Said MP untagged himself, much the indignation of most of his friends.

    When to original poster made a smart comment about him removing the tag he got all upset.
    The MP then suggested that it was a Labour organised campaign to humiliate Nat MP’s as several others had done the same. The Nat MP (Todd McClay) came out looking like a spoilt kid whose mum wasn’t letting him have any lollies in the supermarket.
    This is Nationals pledge card! It has National on it, has a picture of their local MP and is blue – it is NOT a government publication.

    • ianmac 2.1

      In about 2008 we received a leaflet/questionaire under the name of our local National MP. The questions were heavily biased to lead you to support the MP. I wrote to him, and sent a letter to the Editor of our local paper. The MP replied in the same paper but backed off ownership of the leaflet saying it was the work of Head office though it had his photo on it. (I think that was in the time of restricted spending before the 2008 Election.)

  3. tsmithfield 3

    Hmmm… Hypocrisy or balancing the ledger?

  4. Hi Anthony – you ask how the Government is expected to communicate with the public without using advertising paid for by parliamentary budgets. First, it’s worth pointing out that these budgets are not really anything to do with the Executive as such – they’re for the parliamentary parties and the funding amounts are based on how many non-Executive MPs a party has in Parliament. So they’re not supposed to be about the Government.

    Nonetheless, you might legitimately ask how a “political party is expected to communicate with the public” without using parliamentary budgets to buy advertising. I think there are plenty of ways of doing this – from political speeches through to blogging, through to electorate meetings. And the best ways are those that involve healthy and robust membership-oriented political parties that are active on the ground. The use of the parliamentary budgets has proved to be a useful way to bypass more interactive and grassroots methods of political communication. The result is that the parliamentary leadership no longer requires a membership-based and active political party, and is instead reliant on a professionalised model of politics where all the decisions and communications emanate out of the parliamentary offices.

    Yes, it’s not easy to define electioneering. But nonetheless the politicians have come up with a definition of this for the three months that proceed election day. So it’s very instructive that the politicians won’t let that apply for the full parliamentary term. The answer is that such a definition doesn’t suit them and the politicians want to have it both ways. But logic dictates that their own definition should indeed apply, and that parliamentary spending shouldn’t be allowed for anything that could be seen to encourage a vote for the party or MP.

    But more importantly, if all such parliamentary spending was *totally* transparent, then at least the public could make up its mind on whether any such spending is legitimate.

    And, btw, the original comment I made is in fact now online here:

    • r0b 4.1

      Hi Bryce, thanks for stopping by.

      Nonetheless, you might legitimately ask how a “political party is expected to communicate with the public” without using parliamentary budgets to buy advertising. I think there are plenty of ways of doing this – from political speeches through to blogging, through to electorate meetings.

      Those methods will reach what percentage of the population? Mickysavage has a guess (5 – 10%) in comment 5 below, but I reckon he’s on the optimistic side.

      And the best ways are those that involve healthy and robust membership-oriented political parties that are active on the ground.

      Certainly agree with that, but I don’t see any political parties that look really healthy in those terms. Are the parties all failures, or is it the changing nature of the population? My guess is the later. The days of mass participation in parties, such as they ever existed, seem to be over.

      Yes, it’s not easy to define electioneering. But nonetheless the politicians have come up with a definition of this for the three months that proceed election day. So it’s very instructive that the politicians won’t let that apply for the full parliamentary term.

      Labour’s one year was better than the Nats 3 months, but I agree, let’s make it full term.

      But more importantly, if all such parliamentary spending was *totally* transparent, then at least the public could make up its mind on whether any such spending is legitimate.

      Don’t stop there. Fully transparent public funding of political parties with no private donations of any kind. Get the influence of money out of politics.

      And, btw, the original comment I made is in fact now online here:

      Updated, thanks.

      • Colonial Viper 4.1.1

        Don’t stop there. Fully transparent public funding of political parties with no private donations of any kind. Get the influence of money out of politics.


        Those with a lot of money won’t like it though.

        Also need true public service broadcasting enabling people to get their political messages out irrespective of the MSM.

      • So you reckon that political activity beyond paid advertisements only gets the attention of 1-2% of the public? And Mickysavage reckons it only gets out to 5-10%? Wow. So Hone Harawira, for example, was only able to get his politics out to 1-10% of the Te Tai Tokerau electorate in the recent by-election?

        And I know that MPs constantly use the refrain that mass politics is old fashioned in order to marginalise activists and members, but why are you buying into that?

        • Draco T Bastard

          I think he was more referring to the methods you mention in this line:

          I think there are plenty of ways of doing this – from political speeches through to blogging, through to electorate meetings.

          Which would only reach a small minority of the population. Advertising would reach more.

          • Bryce Edwards

            Hi Draco – I think I was fairly clear in saying that there are thousands of different methods of political communication and activism that get your message out to voters that don’t simply involve paying for media adverts, and that these methods “range” from the examples I cited. But for elite parties like Labour and National and the others, these professionalised ways of doing things are the only ones that seem to count. Activism and organic relationship with the public are simply not of interest to the political class, hence the huge desire to exploit (backdoor) parliamentary funding to run everything.

          • r0b

            Draco is correct, I was referring to the specific methods listed, which reach only a narrow segment of the population.

            And I know that MPs constantly use the refrain that mass politics is old fashioned in order to marginalise activists and members, but why are you buying into that?

            Huh?  Not the ones I’ve met, who would like to see more public participation.  But it doesn’t happen, and no one (see e.g. Alliance) seems to know how to make it happen.

  5. BE

    I think there are plenty of ways of doing this – from political speeches through to blogging, through to electorate meetings. And the best ways are those that involve healthy and robust membership-oriented political parties that are active on the ground.

    Easier said than done …

    Most of the Labour MPs do all of that but to be frank they only reach 5 to 10% of the population.  As for robust membership oriented political parties that ended I am afraid in the 1970s when cars and tvs became common.  Now instead of interacting with their local communities many people live in a bubble and are oblivious to what is happening around them.

    And if they rely on MSM media for news then they get smily pictures of John Key in the Herald and 30 second soundbites of bits of information from TV along the lines of “Goff bad Key good”. 

    I have a reasonable idea of the activist base of the various parties.  Labour is probably best off but is stretched, National is nothing but a series of cheques being written, the Greens are poor, Mana pretty good in TTT, the Maori Party not bad in pockets and the rest are just missing.

    What is wrong with tax money being spent on informing people about policies and principles?  What is wrong with people being educated about politics and what the parties stand for?  Isn’t that good for democracy?

    • KJT 5.1

      Agree with Cv above. Transparent taxpayer funding of political parties electioneering.

      Truth in advertising act should apply though.

      No other funding allowed. Probably would kill the NACT’s as they have few non paid activists.

      Should be equal for all parties once they get over a membership/or vote threshold. Voters should decide on who to vote for not the electoral commission allocating funding.

      • Draco T Bastard 5.1.1

        Should be equal for all parties once they get over a membership/or vote threshold.

        You need 500 people just to register as a party and it’s not easy to get that many people as parties tend to start off local through word of mouth. Or, in other words, I consider just being able to register a party should be barrier enough. Anything more would, most likely, kill the party.

    • Whenever you inject large amounts of money into politics it has an influence – and this isn’t any different with money from the state. The state pays for a lot more electioneering than all the private sources combined, and it has had a significant influence on how political parties operate, pushing them into an elite-professional model where the membership and activists can be disenfranchised. For much more detail on the unhealthy impact of state funding of politics, see details of my submission against the National Government’s legislation to entrench the backdoor state funding of parties:


  6. kriswgtn 6

    yeah got one of these from that smarmy creepy Nathan Guy couple weeks ago here in Pram- i ripped it up and went into recycling bin after reading it

    but it was glossy and i would love to know how much this bullshit cost to produce

  7. I’ve had reports of the Nats targeted glossies going to old folk on superannuation; working for families recipients; and students in Dunedin North. They are spending taxpayer’s money within the rules. But I’ve also heard a fair amount of scepticism. Some have written letters to the ODT to ask whether this is the best use of taxpayer money . The irony is that – beneath the spin -they’re effectively announcing ‘business as usual’ inflation adjustments put in place by Labour!

  8. wyndham 8

    Yes, as a pensioner, I got a letter from that nice Mr. Key the other day.

    It is blatant electioneering, listing ‘how the recent Budget will help you and your family’. After a long list of such benefits, it goes on to promote the wonderful advantages of promoting the ‘successful Air New Zealand mixed-ownership model to four state-owned energy companies’. I was assured that government will keep majority control and that New Zealanders will be at the front of the queue for shares.

    Finally, I was informed that National’s strong management has meant increased Super payments.

    It makes me puke.

    • Colonial Viper 8.1

      thanks for the intel 🙂

    • Blue 8.2

      @Wyndham, So don’t take the super increase then if it makes you puke. You remind me of a satiric film about a bloke called Bob Roberts. A Politician that had a problem with whiners. He wrote a song to the effect that lefties like to scream “give me a handout while a I complain.” So Wyndham you just keep taking that handout, and the increase, but don’t forget to complain about it.

      • felix 8.2.1

        “A Politician that had a problem with whiners.”

        Wow, that film went right over your wee head. Which is amazing really, as it wasn’t that complex.

        p.s. your suggestion that entitlement to superannuation be dependent on keeping one’s opinions about govt propaganda to oneself is frankly disgusting.

      • MrSmith 8.2.2

        Blue: you really are the best advert I have seen all day to vote Labour and if you have nothing constructive to say, maybe you should slither back into your dark, slimy, cold, hole with the other bullies.

      • Ianupnorth 8.2.3

        I thought just calling him a twat would suffice, but you guys have out done me!

  9. Anthony 9

    Yep I had a bragfest from Nikki Kaye not long ago as well.

    • adriank 9.1

      I recently enrolled in Ohariu and have had a letter from Chauvel and a full blown glossy headshot and survey from Shanks. Filled that one out and sent it back with gusto.

      Oddly nothing yet from Peter Dunne, he perhaps thinks I am too young to understand the brand of ‘common sense’ he purveys.

  10. sophie 10

    Got survey pamphlet from Hekia Parata even though I live outside the Mana electorate!

  11. ianupnorth 11

    Questions need to be asked in the house!

  12. Pascal's bookie 12

    What are the rules around the truthiness or otherwise of what parliamentary services funds?

  13. John Dalley 13

    Currently around West Auckland, we have the “mug shots” of Paula Bennett, Tim Groser and Tau Henare staring down at us from what i term political billboards and i must say i am getting sick of seeing there ugly mugs. I think they are paid for by central government and can only assume that they are legal. I do wonder if they are permitted by the Auckland Council but am sorely tempted to complain.

    • Craig Glen Eden 13.1

      Same those Nat Mps seem to be just Brand/Self promotion Boards you cant even see if their is a meeting topic or where the meeting is being held.
      While i love politics I am sick of these pointless billboards, surely they need to have a real reason for the meeting not just “what it means to be a westie” for pete sake.

    • Anne 13.2

      I was out your way the other day John Dalley and saw the bill boards. I wondered how Tim Groser felt having his mugshot together with Bennett and Henare. He looked a bit like a fish out of water.

  14. burt 14


    If it comes out that Nation/ACT have allegedly breached the rules I expect you to fully support the National party passing retrospective validations under urgency, killing any court cases as necessary to protect the best interests of the National party.

    • Georgecom 14.1

      Hey Burt, I guess we’ll see all the Nat MPs shouting in unison to themselves “Pay it back, pay it back” in the house tomorrow.

      When Prime Minister Key returns to NZ next week we will get a speech in the house from him demanding that the National Party pay that money back.

      Won’t we?

      I mean, won’t that happen?


      • burt 14.1.1

        I mean, won’t that happen?

        It should. If they have “stolen” money for their own best interests then they should be charged and the courts should decide if they broke the law. The worst possible outcome from this would be the MPs saying they didn’t break the law, the ref made a bad call and we need to move on so we validate under urgency.

        Oh and don’t forget the most important things they will say (supported by partisan hacks who think the colour of a party is more important than it’s integrity) – The rules were confusing… others were doing it too….

        If they do this please don’t remember that by convention MPs are not allowed to use the “reasonable person” defense that the law was confusing – they wrote it, they voted to enact it – they are bound by it… anything else is an assault on democracy.

        • Georgecom

          But do we EXPECT to see it happening Burt? Do we expect to see Key & the rest of National berating themselves for ‘stealing’ tax payers money and the election? Do you expect to hear chants from National of ‘pay it back’?

          I don’t.

          Whats the word that describes that sort of thing, something beginning with H I think.

          Didn’t John Key campaign on ‘higher standards’?

        • Blue

          I agree Burt, if they have stolen money they should pay it back. just like Labour had to pay back (still paying back?) the $800,000 they stole from the public purse. Maybe the rules were “confusing” then too?

  15. Why not, they do everything else under urgency, why change how they do business (generally for the best interests of business)

  16. Alice 16

    Life is what you make it- reality bites, people can bite, yes, but that doesn’t mean you’re so docile and meek you can’t bite back. Come on are you ‘alive’ or have you already convinced yourself you are as dead as a fucking doorknob.

    Stop acting sooo useless, wimpy and pathetically hopeless.

    PS- I have no other reason for saying your as dead as a doorknob, other than, I am just stating ‘your being’ is so utterly useless right now, it’s pretty much laughable, you’re a joke.

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