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Electoral finance: link roundup

Written By: - Date published: 3:45 am, November 15th, 2007 - 48 comments
Categories: election funding - Tags:

Tony Milne’s got a good piece on the Electoral Finance Bill over at his blog I See Red – electoral finance reform is a way to safeguard democracy:

“New Zealand history tells an interesting story about the battle for democracy. Whenever progressive forces have mobilised to extend the franchise or the ideal of ‘one person, one vote’ the forces of the right, mostly represented by the National Party, have stood shoulder to shoulder with the wealthy and powerful to oppose such change.”

Jordan Carter’s post a couple of days ago makes the point that the law should treat all parties the same, and that the current law doesn’t:

“Currently in New Zealand politics, the scrum is well and truly screwed – in National’s favour. Big, dirty money had a sinister role in 2005’s general election, as we all know too well. That overreach fortunately failed to deliver Government to National, and so now the political forces which support a level playing field are going to push through laws to do just that.”

On Public Address Russell Brown suggests that on closer examination The Herald might not be quite the defender of democracy it would have us believe:

“It sees no problem in very wealthy individuals being able to anonymously pursue their interests by funnelling millions of dollars through secret party trusts that are opaque to the public. And for the spending of that money on electioneering to be open slather apart from the three months presently deemed to be the official election campaign. This seems an odd stance for a self-styled champion of democracy…”

Just to remind us why we’re even talking electoral reform, No Right Turn takes us back to the shady events of 2005:

The real “attack on democracy” comes not from the bill, but from an existing regime which allows rich parties with rich mates to ignore disclosure requirements and circumvent spending limits – effectively allowing them to sell policy and buy power.

We saw these loopholes exploited in the 2005 election, when National used a network of secret trusts to launder donations, thus preventing any public scrutiny of what donors were getting in exchange for their money. That party then used its mountain of cash to spend up large on advertising before the regulated period began, thus circumventing its spending limit.

Then, when the election campaign actually began, it colluded with the Exclusive Brethren and the Fairtax lobby to have well over a million dollars spent in support of their election, over and above their official spending. This was on material designed and scripted by National, but officially published by others in a deliberate effort to circumvent the law.

In a recent post entitled “The Electoral Fincance Bill: is our democracy really at threat” Colin Espiner rounds the recommended reading with a reminder that The Herald isn’t famed for it’s neutrality (“[readers] know not to turn to this organ for balanced, unbiased coverage on this particular topic”) and a gives a nice pitch of his own for state funding:

And before anyone leaps on their high horse about misuse of taxpayers’ money, puh-lease. The current situation is precisely the one that has operated for decades, and will continue to operate until we finally get around to state funding of political parties, which would be a far simpler, clearer, and fairer system for all.

48 comments on “Electoral finance: link roundup ”

  1. Camryn 1

    The following purported facts are just speculation…
    – That National ‘laundered’ donations through trusts i.e. knew who its anonymous donors were.
    – That National sells policy explicitly (i.e. more than the extent to which all parties indirectly pander to their interests e.g. Labour making student loans zero interest)
    – That National had any scripting or co-ordination role in third party communications in the 2005 election.
    – That the EB or National were attempting to circumvent the law (N.B. Glass houses, stone throwing, Labour overspend, etc)

    It’s also just your opinion, which I believe to be false, that…
    – Money buys elections (I prefer to think that people aren’t sheep, but I guess that’s why I’m a rightie not a leftie)
    – That those with money should be prevented from using it to express their views (free speech is free speech… equal speech is a different objective)

    Along with all the exaggeration and loaded speech, these facts make these linked articles and this post a great example of straight-out propaganda rubbish.

  2. Lee C 2

    Thank you Labour! About time too! I for one am sick of the shit process we laughingly call ‘democratic’ just getting away with it everytime.

    Imagine my shock when I just found out that New Zealand’s largest Newspaper has joined the conspiracy to pervert the election process?

    I’m just glad that democracy managed to hold its own all these years before Helen and Mike stepped in to eradicate out all this corruption?

    When Labour win the next election, the Herald’s shoddy bias has have proven that the press will need tighter regulation, too (only in an ‘election year’, of course).

    I mean we can’t just sit idly by and accept corrupt electoral practices just going on under our noses, can we?

    The law will change soon, just be patient, everyone….

    Once again, thank you Labour!

  3. all_your_base 3

    Hey Camryn, thanks for your comments. I take your point but I guess at some stage you have to ask yourself what’s plausible and what’s not.

    1. Laundering donations. Very likely (certain?) the big donors were known to the Nats. There’s plenty of evidence to support this conclusion in The Hollow Men (I don’t have my copy on my right now)

    2. Selling policy. Again if you reject this analysis it’s difficult to make sense of much of the content of The Hollow Men. I agree that sometimes something like ‘privatisation ideology’ and the interests of someone like the Insurance Council might overlap but this is all the more reason that there should be increased transparency.

    3. Coordination. Hard to prove, but hard also not to be left with that impression having looked at all of the election material. I’ll do a post with images shortly and you can make your own mind up.

    4. Intentional overspend. a) The Nats blew all their cash before the final couple of weeks of the campaign – just look how their ads dried up – yet this is the most important time for political messaging. It would have looked like mismanagement were it not the *exact* time that the Brethren dropped their pamphlets. Coincidence? Maybe. More plausible interpretation? Collusion. b) Glass houses etc. Labour and the other parties that got pinged by the AG weren’t doing anything they hadn’t done before. The goalposts were shifted *after* the election.

    Does money buy elections? If we didn’t think it had some influence would we bother capping expenditure at all? We do cap, and presumably we do that because we *do* think that money has at least some power to influence results.

    Given that we agree to some cap for *parties* we should be suspicious of a system that allows “external” third parties to swamp an election with cash, a la the EB. If money can influence a result and we cap parties, we should cap other players too in the interests of protecting our democracy.

    So maybe we disagree but cheers for reading.

  4. Robinsod 4

    Does money buy elections? If we didn’t think it had some influence would we bother capping expenditure at all?

    Or alternatively why do political parties spend any money at all (perhaps National could test this thesis by spending no money at all next election)?

  5. Lee C 5

    This from ‘I see Red’
    “Perhaps if the Herald had started from a similar position and asked the questions below they might be respected as a quality newspaper contributing to important debate, rather than a propaganda publication of the National Party.

    How do we ensure that election law enable fair elections that are not determined by those with the largest wallets?
    What would such legislation look like?
    Where is the current Electoral Finance Bill going wrong and how could it be improved?”

    How long has the Herald been covering this, and giving the governemnt opposrtunities to front up over it?

    The Bill has been on the table for about three months before The Herald became ‘a propaganda publication of the National Party’

    FOr a Party which is so into transparency, surely the Labour Party could have done a little bit more to assuage peoples’ worries about these questions rather than trying to sneak the Bill through under the radar.

    This just sounds like a little kid caught hitting hs brother going ‘Well he hit me first!!”

  6. Robinsod 6

    Lee – my (very reliable) media sources tell me the National Party has leaked their select committee EFB minority report to the Herald (in breach of parliamentary privilege) and it was only at that point the Herald started running this issue. We’ll have to wait until the report is released with the rest of the SC papers to to see just how much the Herald’s reportage lines up with it but it certainly makes sense. I’d imagine the Nats will only campaign on the issue at arm’s length – it gives them plausible deniability if they decide to backtrack.

  7. Spam 7

    4. Intentional overspend. a) The Nats blew all their cash before the final couple of weeks of the campaign – just look how their ads dried up

    Nice story, except their ads didn’t dry up.

    Labour were told well in advance of the election that the pledge card would have to be included as an election expense. Mike Williams confirmed that they would include it in their return, whilst Helen ‘plausible denial’ Clark refused to meet with the Chief Electoral officer. The decision was then made ‘law be damned’, Mike William’s agreement to include the pledge card as a legitimate expense was reneged on, and Labour was full-steam-ahead using our money to fund their advertising.

  8. Camryn 8

    all_your_base and Robinsod: “Some influence” does not equal “buy”. Political adverts feed information into the minds of voters that they can use to weigh up their choice. The information a voter receives does influence their decision, but most are exposed to a range of arguments through advertising, media, family and friends and their own life experiences. Using “buy” is not accurate as it makes it sound as if the outcome can be determined by sufficient money. These other factors cannot be over-ridden.

    As the analysis in the well known “Freakonomics” book shows, money actually has very little influence on election outcomes. I suspect diminishing returns, personally. Hearing a message a second time doesn’t make it any more convincing than the first time. You ask why parties spend then? Well, very little influence is still influence in a tight race.

    Labour did know they were breaking the rules at least by the time the A-G advised them they were. Yet they continued.

    Like almost everybody on this issue, I wouldn’t want US-style politics with unrestricted third party advertising. This is not only because I see the spending as wasteful, but because third party messages are often inaccurate or spiteful in a way that an official party message cannot afford to be. Still, trying to impose a bureaucracy onto public speech isn’t going to work either. To some extent we have to realise that free speech and equal speech are different and incompatible with each other, and that the former has the great advantages being simple to understand and enforce, while the latter can be abused by whoever is deciding what “equal” is.

    Until we can come up with something less biased and unworkable than the EFB, we’d really be better off going into the next election under the old rules. They worked fine in the past and this time scrutiny and care to comply with the letter and intent of the law, will be very high.

  9. Labour spent $70 million of taxpayers’ money through government departments promoting its own policies in 2005. In addition, they stole almost a million dollars of taxpayers’ money to spend on electioneering.

    And yet Labour is re-writing electoral law to let it happen again, because they are concerned about the influence of “big, dirty money”. What hollow people they are.

  10. Billy 10

    Hold the front page: Tony Milne and Jordan Carter think govt amazing.

    Well whoop-de-shit.

  11. all_your_base 11

    Spam, you’ll have to check with DPF at National Party HQ for the actual numbers but the sources I was looking at dried up in terms of National Party propaganda towards the end of the campaign. I challenge you to produce contrary (dated) evidence – a few examples from a selection of the major dailies would be fine.

    IP – you should stick the word ‘hollow’ only where it belongs – Brash, Key and National.

  12. AYB:

    How is it that when National’s friends spend a million dollars attacking the Government, that is buying an election, yet when Labour steals a million dollars of taxpayers’ money to illegally spend on electioneering, that has no influence on the outcome? How is a million dollars of EB money, expressing the honestly-held views of a group of people who signed up to express that view, more odious, and more influential, than the Labour Party appropriating $70 million of taxpayers’ money by compulsion, to promote Labour Party policies?

  13. Matthew Pilott 13

    IP, one of the functions of a government under democracy is to inform its stakeholders, (‘we the people’ to steal a phrase) of its actions. Why are you against this?

  14. TomS 14

    Interestingly I see David Farrar has owned up to what National HQ’s real agenda here is by for the first time explicitly linking the pledge card card issue with the EFB debate – To quote:

    “…They thought that also with the pledge card. They were wrong…”

  15. What a frigging coincidence, Matthew, that an election year is the time when the governing Labour Party decides to do most of its “informing” of “stakeholders”.

    $70 million to “inform” the “stakeholders” of government policy, paid for by compulsory taxation, is big, dirty money by anybody’s measure. It’s seventy times larger than the EB spent.

  16. Robinsod 16

    Insolent Punter – you’re lying again. Let’s see some figures backing up your spending statement. Here’s a hint: you don’t have any.

  17. Matthew Pilott 17

    IP, why is it dirty money for a government to abide by the precepts of democracy?

    I think it’s only dirty money by your measure, most decent and democratic-minded citizens want to know what the government is doing.

  18. Spam 18

    Insolent Punter – you’re lying again. Let’s see some figures backing up your spending statement. Here’s a hint: you don’t have any.

    Mr Key said in the last election year – 2005 – government funded advertising had reached a record high of $69 million and he believed this would be repeated again in 2008.

  19. Robinsod 19

    Spam – that number represents an increase in advertising that reflects an increase in public services and entitlements. I think you’ll find that that figure reflects a trend toward growing spend (matching growing entitlements) and that the pattern has continued. Oh, and advertising cost has escalated in the last few years as well.

    Next time I ask for figures you might want to do a bit better than providing one figure out of context.

  20. Spam 20

    You called IP a liar, implying that the government didn’t spend $70 million promoting policy. You asked for evidence, I gave you it. Now you are trying to spin & squirm.

    Fact: The government spends 10’s of millions of dollars every year ‘promoting policies’.

    Fact: 2005, an election year, was much higher than the preceding years.

    And if I recall correctly, there was also an issue where these ‘policy promotions’ were in fact deemed labour party promotions – bus shelters, wasn’t it?

  21. Robinsod,

    It seems you’re slinking away from calling me a liar on this, since you’ve lost this debate. That’s very hollow of you, Robinsod.

    The government is on track to spend $100 million promoting government policies next year.

  22. Matthew Pilott 22

    IP, I think it’s paradoxical that someone as interested in dempcracy as you is against the government carrying out one of its most important functions under democracy, in informing the public of its activities. Think about what the general public would think if your anti-democratic views were enacted.

  23. From the guy who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable for the government to dip into taxpayer’s funds to boost advertising of its own policies, to the tune of $70 million in 2005!

    There’s no way you can slither your way out of that, Matthew.

    Just how much money do you think a government should spend promoting its policies to the public?

  24. Matthew Pilott 24

    IP there is no way you can slither out of this. If the government is advertising services available to New Zealanders then there should be no limits, only what is practically necessary to perform the function. Advertising isn’t cheap, you know, but people have their rights, which i don’t want to see trampled.

    Simply because you don’t believe in open democracy, and perhaps dislike government policies (and therefore don’t want them to be publicised) doean’t mean that they should be censored. People have a right to know what the government is doing and it’s abhorrent that someone who appears to be an intellectual supports censorship of the government.

  25. Spam 25

    Of course, if that $70 Million was to be spent in completely non-partisan, policy informing ways, then DBP and Anderton would have zero problem in working with Madelline Setchell.

  26. Surely, Matthew, it isn’t an overwhelming restriction of government departments–which, by the way, being an organ of the state, don’t have a right to free speech: human rights are owned by individuals, not creatures of state–to require that they don’t spend money advertising their services during an election campaign.

  27. Matthew Pilott 27

    IP, the rights are those of the people to be informed of their government’s activities. Perhaps you think Democracy is a bit flexible – that there’s nothing wrong with restricting government and blackouts of government activities here and there, but most people who cherish a free and fair democracy will find this abhorrent.

  28. Matthew,

    Government has all the rest of the electoral cycle to promote government policies. People won’t suddenly not know where the hospital is if governments are restricted from ramming down our throat every moment of every day Labour’s working for families policies.

    Why do you think it is, Matthew, that Labour is launching the advertising of its primary healthcare strategy in April next year? Why isn’t it being advertised now, that it has been fully implemented? Could it possibly have ANYTHING to do with it being right in the middle of the election campaign next year?

  29. Sam Dixon 29

    OUr wee mates at blogblog are getting in on the act too http://kiwiblogblog.wordpress.com/

  30. Billy 30

    God help you, Matthew, if Labour ever loses the treasury benches. I presum then that you will consider it OK for National to rort the system in exactly the same way. A little short sighted, don;t you think?

  31. Camryn 31

    Matthew – You argue poorly. You can’t refute IPs stance against electioneering in the guise of the government informing the populace by saying “so you oppose the government informing the populace”. He’s not against the democratic idea, he’s against the abuse of the idea.

    Slight Asides: I’ve always wondered why governments use TV campaigns to promote complex entitlements etc. For a fraction of the advertising spend, you could get a letter – even a personalized letter – explaining in much more detail. Also, there’s a difference between the government’s obligation to make information available and ramming down one’s throat. As long as the information is readily accessible, we should not forget that the citizen has an equal obligation to inform herself. This is a developed society, not a kindergarten.

  32. Matthew Pilott 32

    IP the issue is whether a government should be legally censored at any time. As a supporter of democracy, my answer is no. Perhaps you should question why yours is different.

    Billy it’s about freedom of democracy – I wouldn’t want any governmental activity by National to be censored either. It’s not short-sighted to disagree with an infringement upon democracy. I don’t argue this for Labour, that would be short sighted. It’s about the principle, but if you consider democracy in action a rort, perhaps you should reassess any committment you do (or don’t) have to the democratic process.

  33. unaha-closp 33

    “Perhaps you think Democracy is a bit flexible – that there’s nothing wrong with restricting government and blackouts of government activities here and there, but most people who cherish a free and fair democracy will find this abhorrent.”

    Too right Matthew, people who cherish free and fair democracy do find restrictions and blackouts abhorrent. Advertising is not cheap don’t you know and preventing the electorate from being informed is too much a flexation of democracy for most.

  34. Billy 34

    Matthew, you win the prize for gullibility. Remember how those billboards saying “You’re better off with Labour” were part of that vital communication with the public about the services the government provides?

  35. Matthew,

    Let me get this straight. You’re saying that the Government should never be censored, that citizens have a right to know what Government’s policies are, that the Government should be able to spend as much money as it likes informing people about its policies, and that it is an unnecessary breach of everybody’s human rights if the Government doesn’t do this.

    Conversely, you’re saying that third parties and political parties should be censored, that citizens do not have a right to know what political parties’ policies are, that political parties should not be able to spend as much money as they like informing citizens about their policies, and it is a vital levelling of the political playing field that political parties and third parties are censored?

  36. Robinsod 36

    Camryn – TV advertising is one of the best tools for reaching an audience with a message. Often govt departments will run multi-platform advertising campaigns to ensure greatest reach. Depending on the targeted demographic these campaigns may include direct personal mailing. Anyone in advertising will tell you that each type of advertising serves a particular role in a campaign and the best campaigns use multiple points of contact. As for “abuse of the idea”. Show some proof that it’s being abused (other than conjecture base on a single number) and IP might have a point. Though if I were you Camryn, I’d not get involved in any of IP’s augmentative fiascoes.

  37. Matthew Pilott 37


    I don’t think you have it straight at all. We were talking about the $70m spending being, as Billy described, a rort.

    You said that “$70 million to “inform” the “stakeholders” of government policy, paid for by compulsory taxation, is big, dirty money by anybody’s measure. It’s seventy times larger than the EB spent.”

    I’m saying that it’s actually an important aspect of democracy, one that you and Billy are overlooking, perhaps out of expediency to your views.

    Billy – Government departments also need to advertise their policies, think of the opposite. A ban on this adversising would make it illegal for government departments to tell us what they are doing. Do you think that is fair and democratic?

    I don’t imagine that one example covers $70m, but then I haven’t hired a billboard before. Have you done so? Can you confirm it would cost $70m for a billboard campaign?

  38. How about this, Robinsod.

    The Labour Government decides to advertise its primary healthcare strategy six months after it’s being implemented, right in the middle of the election campaign, in April 2008.

    The Labour Government fires Madeleine Setchell, after using ministerial interference to get rid of her, purportedly because of a conflict of interest. The State Services Commissioner reports that Setchell’s firing was unnecessary, that the conflict could have been managed, and quite critically says that if the policies that the Government were intending to promote were going to be political in nature, then the promotion campaign should not take place; if the campaign was not going to be political, then the SSC stated there would have been no conflict of interest. A remarkable coincidence, you might say, that the promotion campaign that Setchell would have been involved in, at the MfE, is the Government’s much-vaunted sustainability campaign.

    The Government is expected to spend $100 million in advertising its policies over the next twelve months. You’re happy for this advertising to be unrestricted, and unfettered, because any restriction would be a breach of New Zealand citizens’ right to know about government’s policies.

    Meanwhile, you’re saying that the Exclusive Brethren spending $1 million criticising Government policy should be banned, and that such censorship does not breach New Zealanders’ right to know about government policies.

    You should eat more, Robinsod. It would fill you out. Make you feel less hollow.

  39. Billy 39

    Matthew, how does a billboard headed “You’re Better off With Labour” not promote the Labour Party and its policies?

  40. Matthew,

    You’re saying that the Government should have unlimited spending power to promote its policies at any time, but that third parties and political parties should be severely restricted from spending money criticising the Government.

    Why is it that the Government, which isn’t actually a human being, possesses the quality of unfettered free speech, in your view, but that individuals, who should possess the quality of free speech, should not?

    Be honest now, Matthew. It’s not about free speech at all. You simply want the Labour Party to own all the resources to say what they like, when they like, and for as long as they like, and for everybody else to be silenced.

    That is a strange view of democracy.

  41. Camryn 41

    Robinsod – The proof is inherent in the advertising itself. The WFF tells one nothing about WFF. I have worked in advertising, so I’m aware of the use of multiple channels as best appropriate. I simply don’t think that TV ads are effective at conveying entitlements and other detailed government programmes. They’re passable at reminding you not to drive and drive, or fall off a ladder. They’re best as fostering a background impression of a soft warm nanny state that will control you for your benefit. TV ads give impressions, not detail. Also… you mention direct mailings as if they are used regularly, but they’re actually extremely rare. Don’t ask me to prove that… how about YOU prove that they ARE frequently used? Hmm?

  42. Matthew Pilott 42

    IP, I think you’ve missed the point, and I’d suspect it’s deliberately just to throw in a bit of baseless anti-Labour sentiment. You’d been doing so well up until now too!

    What you’re saying is that it is fine for a law to suppress Government activities. I’m saying it’s not. This has nothing to do with Labour; if you took the time to read my posts you’d see that I am arguing this out of principle. Whether under Labour or National, government departments must be able to say what they are doing. What you seem to advocate is a blackout of those departments.

    If you took just a little time to think about this (Billy, you too) you’d realise that individuals’ rights will be violated – they will not be able to find out what their government is up to. That’s not a strange view of democracy – it’s not democracy at all.

  43. the sprout 43

    hardly surprising though for National to not want voters to know what government departments would be doing under their rule

  44. Spam 44

    What you’re saying is that it is fine for a law to suppress Government activities. I’m saying it’s not

    So why do most countries have a constitution? Of course laws should suppress government activities – the government if for the people, not the other way around. Otherwise you have mugabe etc legislating themselves into power for perpetuity.

    Unless that’s actually what you want labour to do…

  45. Robinsod 45

    Camryn – have you ever received enrollment materials? And the fact that the WFF ads (I thought they were pretty crap by the way) didn’t give detail is what you’d expect – good TV advertising is designed to pique your interest through a visceral message which is then backed up in detail by other advertising platforms. TV is about reach not depth. If you try to provide detail in a 15″ TV ad you’re throwing your money away. I would have thought that someone who’s worked in advertising would know that.

  46. Camryn 46

    Robinsod – I do know that. I am exactly saying that. I’m also saying that the objective of the WFF campaign should be to inform, not pique interest. Getting a letter directly means you didn’t need to do anything to get the information (it’s a passive receiving action) so no interest is required. Perhaps you’d suggest they’d not open the letter? In fact, I would think that anyone who actually needs WFF will have their interest sufficiently piqued by that pressing financial need to pay attention when they get the letter.

  47. Matthew Pilott 47

    Spam, true, that statement was a generalisation (I’m perhaps falling into the IP methodology, cripes) – I’m referring to instances where law will restrict people’ right to participate in democracy…

    As said, not being partisan here! Nice of you to imply that (as a proponent of democracy) I prefer authoritarian regimes though….

  48. Robinsod 48

    Camryn – Fair enough. It’d be good to see a cost/benefit analysis of such spending before I’d venture much more opinion.

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