Today I attended the Transparency International / VUW Institute of Policy Studies symposium on The Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns. It was a well-attended event, with around 65 people at its peak, including several MPs, various political scientists and commentators, and various party presidents and officials. It also saw five bloggers - myself, DPF, Bryce Edwards, Zippy GoNZales, and Russel Norman (technically there as a party official, but since he also does Frogblog he officially counts as one of us). In fact, the bloggers outnumbered the journalists (two from Radio NZ, one from NZPA) - which unfortunately seems to be par for the course on this important public issue.
The morning sessions were given over to the political scientists, the afternoon to the politicians. I'll save the latter for another post (probably once I've recovered and caught up a bit).
Dr Paul Harris: (former chief executive of the Electoral Commission) gave the opening address. He summarised the overall goals of campaign finance laws - deterring corruption, promoting a level playing field, promoting competition, limiting overall spending, and promoting transparency - and noted that different democracies balance these goals in different ways according to their needs. In New Zealand we've regulated candidate spending for these reasons for over a century - the first law on the matter was in 1895 - though party spending has only been regulated more recently (in 1993, following the decision to move to MMP). Problems with the 2005 election show a clear need for reform, but there are disputes over who should design the rules, and over whether we need a full public inquiry.
Dr Helena Catt (current chief executive of the Electoral Commission) reviewed New Zealand's current legal framework as contained in the Electoral Act 1993 and Broadcasting Act 1989. In doing so she highlighted some of its problems. These included the three-way split of responsibility among the Electoral Enrolment Centre (who everyone agrees does an excellent job), the Chief Electoral office and Electoral Commission; the High Court ruling in the Peters - Clarkson election petition, which has significantly altered the ground around what counts as an election expense and how expenses are apportioned with parties; the slightly different rules for candidates and parties (candidates apparently aren't allowed to do negative advertising, but can spend their own money on broadcasting); and the confusion resulting from having seven different bodies responsible in some way for handling complaints.
Dr Joo Cheong Tham (University of Melbourne) gave a fascinating talk entitled Lessons from a 'Relaxed and Comfortable' Country: Money and politics in Australia (or how not to regulate political finance). This delves into the details of election financing in Australia and uncovers some startling problems - the biggest of which is not the lack of laws, but the fact that they have been made irrelevant by the complete normalisation of corruption in the Australian political system. In Australia, federal parties openly sell access, and the government auctions meetings with ministers ($10,000 to meet Tony Abbott; $12,000 for a night at the opera with Helen Coonan). Parties have funding organisations for businesses, at which companies pay for "off the record" briefings and boardroom lunches, and companies sign up to them in order to receive government contracts (and are told to by parties because their competitors have and otherwise they will miss out). And all of this goes on despite there being a ban on anonymous donations and a disclosure regime similar to our own (though it was significantly stronger until 2005, the problems go a bit deeper). The reason is that Aussie politicians have no shame, and as Tham points out, the best disclosure system in the world won't help unless that is fixed - the sunshine may be let in, but the smell remains.
There's a lot more in Tham's paper, about the use of Parliamentary funding and gross abuse of government advertising, for example, and I'm hoping it shows up on the web sometime. Alternatively, perhaps some of the other bloggers in attendance could focus on some of the other bits?
Associate Professor Raymond Miller (University of Auckland) introduced the next section on "lessons from the past and comments on the Labour-led Government's reform proposals" with two pleas: tat we take into account the effect of state funding on party membership and activists, and that we involve the wider public in the process. He suggested the idea of a citizen's jury - as recently used in Ontario to decide on electoral reform - in the place of a (more traditional) Royal Commission. It was an idea that kept cropping up for the rest of the symposium.
Associate Professor Andrew Geddis (University of Otago) gave an overview of problems with New Zealand's current system, which generally mirrored his PQ paper [PDF; go off and read it]. Along the way he made an interesting point about the level of our candidate (as opposed to party) spending limits - they haven't been adjusted since 1993, and may now be too low. He was also concerned that the current rules around third-party campaigning encourage negative or attack advertising - as otherwise spending must be counted against an allied party's cap. Finally, he also expressed real concerns about enforcement, particularly the ability of the police to do the job properly 9something which again there seems to be widespread agreement on).
Steven Price (Coalition for Open Government) had been hoping he'd have a bill to critique by now. He didn't, so instead he gave a quick overview of the Coalition for Open Government's proposed solutions. This was followed by an analysis of the material leaked to the media about Labour's proposals. Here he echoed the usual criticisms about how Labour was developing its policies (in secret, without public input, and without broad political agreement). He also criticised the proposed disclosure threshold of $5000 as being too high and the proposed increase in penalties (a doubling of the fine for a corrupt practice from $4,000 to $8,000) as being far too modest. As he has often pointed out, you can get seven years in prison for stealing a TV - surely an election is that important? Paradoxically, he was worried that Labour's proposed $60,000 limit on third party spending was too low - that it would not be sufficient for a group to run ads in all major daily newspapers. I'd like to see some costs here, but if that's correct, then it does need to be higher. While I want third parties to be controlled to prevent them from trying to buy elections by flinging millions of dollars around, the spending limit should be set to prevent abuse - not to prevent anyone from getting a message across.
Part 2 to follow...