On Friday I attended the Transparency International / VUW Institute of Policy Studies symposium on The Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns. I've already blogged about the morning session, from political scientists, here.
The afternoon session was turned over to representatives of political parties. Unlike the morning, which was informative and interesting, it was mostly a disappointing exercise in partisan political hackery, in which politicians and party officials spouted their talking points for the (absent) media with little effort to engage in the debate. The effect was more akin to intellectual spam than a two-way conversation - something made quite obvious by National Party president Judy Kirk spamming herself across the room during the lunch break - and IMHO they contributed little to the overall event.
Steven Joyce (former National party General Manager) basically defended the status quo. While claiming that he wanted to see anonymous donations curbed, he then defended the current $10,000 disclosure threshold as perfectly reasonable, and opposed any attempt to lower it. He called the Coalition for Open Government's suggested $500 threshold a "ridiculously low" level of support - which I think says more about his utter disconnection from the vast majority of voters (to whom $500 is a substantial amount of money) than anything else. On state funding he was simply self-contradictory - he first said that funding should mirror public support and pooh-poohed the idea of equal funding as implying that all parties were of equal merit, then complained about the current broadcasting allocation rules because they mirrored public support (in particular, National's lack of public support at the 2002 election). When later called on this during the questions, he suggested that the problem was that the broadcasting allocation looked at historical levels of support rather than current polling - but its hard to imagine him not screaming bloody murder if National had been given funding consistent with its dismal polling in 2002. Amidst all the hackery, he did make one interesting point: that he thought the next election would be fought in cyberspace, via YouTube and email campaigns. This style of campaigning is more or less free, meaning that it would be uncontrolled under current laws (and that's without even getting into the jurisdictional issues).
Richard Northey (former Labour MP) gave a presentation so boring it almost put me (and much of the audience) to sleep. This may have been intentional, as somewhere in there he advocated getting NZPost to run elections, on the basis of the excellent work done by the Electoral Enrolment Centre (somehow, outsourcing a vital democratic function to corporate control, even if the corporation is state-owned, doesn't seem like a good idea to me). He also dropped the bombshell that an "anonymous" donation was one where a businessman handed you a large check and said "I'm anonymous" (the Electoral Act disagrees). But he also made some interesting points about the duration of spending caps. Back in 1984, when he was running for Parliament, the then $5,000 limit paid for everything a candidate might need - hoardings, newspaper ads, flyers, direct mail, a voter tracking system, and the drinks to celebrate / drown your sorrows afterwards. Now, the $20,000 candidate limit may not, particularly in large rural electorates with five seperate nespapers. If you had raised more money, then you would spend it before the three month limit, on preparing the ground - something we are seeing more and more of in recent elections. His conclusion was that a three-month limit was more suited to an era when there were "short, sharp" election campaigns, rather than the modern age of the "permanent campaign".
Doug Woolerton (NZ First MP) laid out his party's position - support for greater disclosure, opposition to state funding - and noted particularly that the candidate spending rules needed to be clarified as soon as possible in the wake of the High Court ruling in the Peters-Clarkson electoral petition. He also whined that the Auditor-General's report into parliamentary spending meant that Parliamentary Services was "paralysed" and was refusing to sign cheques for advertising any more - a comment which generated the only media coverage of the symposium.
Dr Russel Norman (Green co-leader) presented his party's position, which is generally similar to that of the Coalition for Open Government. He was also enthusiastic about the idea of getting a Citizen's Jury to resolve the long-term shape of our electoral funding regime.
Dr Whatarangi Winiata (Maori Party President) gave a long-winded and tangled speech which lost the audience even more thoroughly than Richard Northey. He displayed a basic ignorance of the legal framework which wasn't exactly encouraging. If it was supposed to illuminate where the Maori Party stood, it failed utterly.
Murray Smith (United Future VP) gave a broad speech, focusing more on his party's view of the general principles which should underpin the law, rather than specific policies. However, he did reveal a few: he supported imposing a spending cap of $100,000 on third-party campaigns, and opposed distortions in the funding regime which favoured larger parties over smaller ones (for example, the broadcasting funding regime, which not only gives larger parties more, but also handicaps small parties by forbidding them from spending as much as the larger ones). He also suggested allowing greater discretion in the use of broadcasting funds - for example, allowing parties to spend them on newspaper advertising rather than solely on TV or radio.
Gary Mallett (ACT) expressed his disappointment that we were even having a debate on the topic, and gave an absolutist rant about freedom of speech. This was neatly countered by Therese Arseneau in the questions, where she pointed out that freedom of speech around elections must be tempered by the principles of political equality and popular control - values ACT does not give a rat's arse about.
Judy Kirk (National Party President) echoed the National party's talking points, declared that we needed a "permissive regime" around donations, and opposed extending the spending limits to cover the whole of election year (translation: she has a pot of money and she wants to use it). She also argued that the penalties for breaching the law were too low, and supported smaller parties getting a larger share of broadcasting funding.
Mike Williams (Labour Party president) reeled off the Labour talking points, which were pretty much what has been leaked so far. Nothing new there either.
One interesting point emerged from the subsequent floor discussion. Right-wing parties expressed strong concerns about the politicisation of the funding rules, and clearly feared that the new regime would explicitly set out to disadvantage them. However, they were also united in their rejection of a citizen's jury - a democratic mechanism which would remove the potential for politicisation by putting the decision where it belongs: in the hands of the people. You could see this as ignorant - some of those parties were utterly clueless about what a citizen's jury would involve - or as merely stupid. Or you could see it as very revealing: the right may hate and fear the left, but at the end of the day they're still politicians and can be bargained with and bought off. Whereas real democratic control might actually result in some real change...