Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Making sausages

Otto von Bismarck is reported to have once said that laws are like sausages - it is better not to see them being made. I think this should be borne in mind when reading the Herald's latest hatchet-job on the Electoral Finance Bill. According to the Herald, officials were given only two days to draft amendments restricting anonymous donations, and the Ministry of Justice only three days to analyse them. But this is the normal process. Select committees meet weekly, and it is not at all unusual for them to agree on the broad direction of amendments at one meeting, and want to have a concrete draft with advice ready for the next. This imposes a tight deadline on officials, who must scramble to draft the relevant clauses and assess their overall impact, but that is ultimately what we pay them for. As for the Herald's other complaint, that officials "were specifically told not to consider any other options to cover anonymous donations", of course they weren't. In case the Herald has forgotten, it is Parliament which makes the law, not officials. At this stage of the legislative process, the latter's job is simply to do what the select committee tells them; they may brief on options if the select committee says "we have a problem, what can we do to fix it?", but where the committee already has a direction in mind, it is the role of officials to implement it.

The Herald knows all this (or at least, they do if their political reporter knows her job, which I see no reason to doubt). But they've decided to ignore it in order to whip up outrage over a bill which will adversely impact their bottom line. And I don't think this sort of misleading reporting does the public any good at all.

(More interesting is the Electoral Commission's advice on the spending limit for third parties. I'm not sure what the appropriate level is here, though $60,000 was obviously far too low. But while the ability for interested groups to make their voice heard is obviously an important factor, so too is the fact that our elections are supposed to primarily be contests between the political parties. They are the people we are deciding between and who will ultimately be held accountable for their policies, and so we need to ensure that their message is heard rather than being drowned by people who have nothing at stake and will never face the judgement of the electorate for the policies they are advocating. While $250,000 is only 10% rather than 5% of the total party spending limit, it's getting to be an appreciable fraction of the total campaign expenses of some of our smaller parties. According to their election returns, the Maori party spent $372,000 in 2005, United Future $409,000, and NZ First $771,000, and I think its those parties we need to be thinking about here rather than the major ones. That said, I'm still not sure if Parliament has got the balance right on this question, and I'm looking forward to it being debated in the Committee Stage. There's an opportunity there for a party to make a case for a higher limit and present constructive amendments, but it remains to be seen whether the opposition will take it).