The latest attempt to construct a sensible political donations regime will likely again prove to be full of holes. Going back to basics would be much better. The good news is that the basics were comprehensively assessed 36 years ago by the 1986 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform. It recommended state funding.
The Royal Commission was established by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a long-term advocate of constitutional reform.’ Their report addressed problems exposed in the perils of single-chamber winner-take-all minority governments that brought us the full-blown neo-liberal agenda in 1984, still a millstone around the nation’s neck.
The Royal Commission recommended a shift to a proportional electoral system. It looked at all the alternatives and finally came down for the mixed-member system we now know as MMP. The comprehensive nature of the Commission’s deliberations proved influential when the issue of electoral reform was put first to a referendum on the type of system, and subsequently which type of proportional system.
The 1986 Royal Commission also addressed the issue of electoral finance in Chapter 8 of its report. Again the deliberations were thorough and the decision finally reached completely independent. After looking at all the issues, the Royal Commission recommended a system of a low donations threshold and complementary state funding to ensure equity and transparency.
This recommendation was not carried through by the National Government charged with introducing the necessary changes to the Electoral Act in 1993, although the then Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, has now come out publicly on several occasions as an advocate for state funding. He was always shrewd, and it can fairly be said in his case that wisdom comes with hindsight.
State funding of political parties had always been the Labour constituency Party’ policy. We came close to it after the 2002 election. I still have a copy of the opinion poll presented by a senior MP to the Party’s New Zealand Council in support of a decision not to proceed with it. The numbers in my opinion were eminently changeable given that the question was put cold.
That decision changed over the course of the fifth Labour government and the question was revisited, but ruled out of order by a veto from Winston Peters, when NZ First formed part of the government after the 2005 election. The recent High Court black-letter law decision both indicates why his support may have been lacking then and why a better system is needed now.
An argument frequently advanced publicly and privately by MPs against state funding of political parties s that “the taxpayer would never stand for it.” This is deeply ironic verging on the specious, because since 1988 the taxpayer has put considerable funds into the hands of Parliamentary political parties.
The boundary between what is now considered legitimate parliamentary state funding and illegitimate election funding was a nightmare to administer when I was a party Secretary between 2001 and 2009. Its entrails are now also being addressed in another court case which shows at the very least that the delineations are by no means yet clear.
The fundamental problem is my opinion is that the 1993 amendments to the 1956 Electoral Act just poured the old wine of constituency donation rules into the new bottles of MMP. Government is now not decided by an aggregate of electoral allegiances, but by the whole-country total of a vote for a particular party.
One of the principal arguments of the 1986 Royal Commission was that a properly functioning party-vote electoral system needed properly resourced political parties. The party role is not simply to contest elections but also to develop successful policy. This is resource-intensive and should not be funded by raffles or internet appeals, and certainly not by vested interests with deep pockets.
The Commission report states at Paragraph 8.122:
..Our parties should be able to operate not just as electoral machines, but also as vehicles through which ideas may be discussed and sound policies developed. If and when elected to government, political parties are expected to implement the policies and programmes developed while in Opposition. …the tasks of government have become increasingly complex in recent years. If the parties policies are inappropriate or poorly researched, either the quality of government will suffer or the people may be denied the implementation of policies for which they voted.
This is the antidote for crisis politics. Whether it is housing or cost of living, better-resourced parties should be able to produce practical policy solutions while in Opposition. That benefits everybody, including the government of the day, and especially and crucially the citizen voters.
As the ODT editorial writers point out today, catch-up politics trying to plug loopholes is absolutely the wrong way to address this contentious issue. It cannot be left to political parties and is all the more unwise when the thoroughly independent and comprehensive work has already been done, by no less than their suggested Royal Commission.
The temptation to be self-serving in all areas of electoral law reform is always likely to overwhelm parties already in power, which begs the question of why some way has not been found of keeping them at arm’s length.
Such a move, however, would require enough maturity for the parties to agree to something like a royal commission and then commit to implementing what it recommended.
Without that we are left with piecemeal changes to the law designed to convince the populace that something is happening even if that something is not much.
We don’t have too many Royal Commissions in our history. The work has been done, the reform remains incomplete and the report should not be allowed to gather dust on a shelf.