Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Public funding II

The blogosphere is running hot with posts over the possible public funding of political parties, with DPF denouncing the idea, and Tony Milne supporting it. The Red Letter has an excellent summary of the arguments on both sides, and I think it is well worth paying attention to. This is an issue which fundamentally affects our democracy, so its something we want to get right.

I've said before that I'm of two minds about this - but at the same time, as a democrat, I incline more towards public funding than against it. I find each of Red's "pro" arguments compelling, though I think that they're all really the same argument in three different forms. Public funding is about democracy and fairness; it is about ensuring that it is votes that count, not money, and that the voices of the rich do not count for more than those of the poor. And it is about ensuring that the competition for votes is a fair one, that parties are able to be judged on their merits (however defined) rather than how much money they have and that (again - do you detect a theme here?) that parties are not able to buy themselves more attention and more votes simply by virtue of their wealth.

This is a powerful ideal, and I think it's one that most New Zealanders would strongly agree with. Its the reason why we have election spending laws in the first place, and the reason why we allocate broadcasting time (though by a grossly flawed method) rather than just allowing parties open slather to buy it - because we do not think that government should be for sale.

But while I incline towards public funding, I recognise that there are disadvantages. I've already talked about the potential for it to further widen the gap between Parliamentary parties and their grassroots members, by weakening one of the few pieces of leverage that members have over their party hierarchies. This is a disadvantage, but given the low rates of party membership (and more importantly, active party membership) at present, then its hardly decisive. The issue is irrelevant to the vast majority of voters, and is likely to remain so. More worrying is the potential for public funding to entrench the current crop of parties in Parliament, while preventing new ones from becoming established. We see this problem already in the allocation of broadcasting funding (which arguably creates a self-fulfilling prophecy - the largest parties get the most advertising, and so get the most votes, and so on ad infinitum), and in MMP's unfair and undemocratic 5% threshold, and it runs directly counter to that ideal of a fair competition for votes. But the problem isn't insoluble, and its certainly possible to conceive of a fair system which didn't just entrench insiders or favour the largest parties (flat-funding or funding proportional to the number of electorate candidates would seem to be contenders). The question is whether Parliament would vote for such a system. Based on past anti-democratic behaviour from the two main parties, I have my doubts...


I can think of no worst time to make a case for public funding, than when the Govt has been caught breaking the existing funding laws. It looks like rewarding them for their behaviour.

Any decision on public funding has to be totally separate to the current issue re pledge cards etc.

Turning to your reasons you support public funding, what you seem to want is a cap on election expenditure (which we have already). Public funding just means parties can be out of touch and complacent and still receive funds.

Posted by David Farrar : 8/16/2006 05:10:00 AM

I agree that this is a terrible environment in which to be having this debate. Labour should have brought this issue up in their first term, when the public will might have been there to support it. Now it just looks craven and questionable.

That doesn't dismiss it as a good idea however. It just means that any public debate now will be incredibly negative, with National stirring the pot as they know they can get by without any public funding (despite the fact that probably no other party can).

How democratic is National really being here - knowing that they, and only they, can get by and trying to use that suggestion to shoot down the chances of other political parties and ideas to be fairly heard?

Posted by Span : 8/16/2006 08:24:00 AM

DPF: what you seem to want is a cap on election expenditure (which we have already). Public funding just means parties can be out of touch and complacent and still receive funds.

An expenditure cap is a start, but where it is set now clearly advantages wealthy parties over poorer ones. And that I think is clearly counter to our principle that government should not be for sale.

(I was planning to squeeze in a note that the issue of whether Parliament should retrospectively legislate to validate past spending was a seperate question from whether it should establish a public funding scheme, but it just didn't flow. But I'll note that, as long as National keeps trying to conflate the issues and doesn't offer its own solution on retrospective validation which assuages the fears of other parties while cutting labour out, it runs the risk of seeing the two dealt with in one big package...)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/16/2006 11:12:00 AM

Span: DPFs position over in Tony's comments (not just against public funding, but also against the current broadcasting allocation system) is perfectly clear: he wants the rich to be able to buy elections. And that is something we should strenuously oppose.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/16/2006 11:13:00 AM

Apart from the small party issue, the main problem with public funding of parties (and with funding limits in general) is that people and organisations are able to end-run the process by producing political propaganda outside the direct control of a party. Should the Exclusive Brethren be considered part of Nationals spending. Should the New Zealand Herald? Should David Farrar - he forgoes time he would presumably get paid for to write his blog?

Where does free comment become election spending?

Posted by Rich : 8/16/2006 12:24:00 PM

Sure, it's what National wants, and I agree entirely on what DPF is trying to do here. But given the broad coalition which has formed around the issues, I think some form of public funding and retrospective validation is going to happen. Hell, even ACT seems to support it - but they've just learned the hard way that the sorts of self-interested mercenaries who would fund a party to advocate for lower taxes are also the sorts of self-interested mercenaries who will dump that party if a better one comes along.

The options for National then are whether they want to see Labour's pledge cards included or excluded from that process. There was an opportunity to try and build a coalition for exclusion - retrospective validation "but for" - but National has backed itself so far into a political corner that a principled stand is now impossible for them. Good for Labour - but bad if you'd like to see them held to account sometimes.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/16/2006 02:24:00 PM

National is basically saying "fuck democracy" we want to buy whatever we want. In the last election National had a HUGE amount of cash to spend, in fact so much that they had almost more money left over than Labour had total donations. On top of that they didn't declare the EB spending that Brash had auothorised, whereas Labour included a substantial amount of Union money's clearly spent on their behalf.

National began their 2005 campaign at least a month earlier than anyone else. The sheer number of billboards and total TV spots must have outnumbered ALL the other parties combined. The flat reality was that National was the party that attempted to BUY the 2005 election. And they did it by NOT including at least a million dollars of money's spent by external parties.

Up against this wall of money Labour had to tap the Leader's Parliamentary fund. If they had not then the total spend by Labour would have been about 50% of National's. The PS money had been used for the exact same purpose in previous elections...this was NOT a new initiative...the difference was that for some reason what was ok the last two elections was no being actively challenged by various officials.

Now this country has seen so little REAL corruption you really have to ask WHY the change in the rules, in the weeks prior to a very close election? Why was this issue not sorted out several years in every practical sense Labour had every right to resist the new rule interpretations being thrust upon it so close to an election when there was simply no practical time to change strategies.

Who decided the rules needed changing? And when? And why at that time? Changing the rules AFTER the election date has been announced put Labour under enormous pressure, especially when it was obvious from the outset that National had at least twice the money to spend.

And now well after the election we get these "brightline" rules that appear to have major implications going back at least a decade for ALL parties. Frankly it is a fricken mess. The sight of Brash sanctimoniously calling corruption, while his party sits on an enormous pile of cash and undeclared funding is a despicable hypocrisy that a bunch of cock-sucking media types have swallowed whole. Cullen reminding the Herald owners that they are slagging Labour for doing exactly what they too are legitimately in the process of doing, ie getting retrospective legistaltion to square away the effects of a rule change...just underlines the vile stench of right wing bullshit on this whole subject.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/16/2006 04:49:00 PM

sunshine is the best policy. despite being a National party member I would strongly support Limits on donations from any single organisation and tighter disclosure limits. National use of trusts to screen the actual source of funds is within the rules but not desirable. Labour got a large portion of its funds from a very small number of sources - taxpayer, foriegn billionaire, unions. They would have more to lose than National.

Lets not hear any bullshit that the rules were changed or unclear. They were simply not enforced and the outcome was not in doubt.

I fail to see why taxpayers should fund electioneering. The success of moveon and the like in the US is a clear example of how the left is not constrained in fundraising.

The idea is that any individual cannot buy an election. New Zealand has had a reasonably uncorrupt system due to self restraint from politicians. The corruption demontrated by Clark/Cullen shows we need tighter and enforced rules, not public funding. That will simply lead down the canadian route of more corruption. Those who have their hands on the allocation of money will have the incentive to abuse it for their own ends.

It is far more democratic for us to insist that voters come up with cash to support their chosen view with strict limits to ensure that a small group cannot buy an election.

Posted by sagenz : 8/16/2006 09:04:00 PM


Lets not hear any bullshit that the rules were changed or unclear. They were simply not enforced and the outcome was not in doubt.

And lets not hear any bullshit then that the same rules do not apply to ALL PS, to ALL parties funding going back decades.

As for sunshine...if National had properly included the EB expenditure Brash authorised then they would have broken the rules by a million dollars or more. But that dirty little secret is being kept in the shade is it not?

Posted by Anonymous : 8/17/2006 11:30:00 AM

Logix and Span:

What both of you suffer from is the cursed affliction of envy.

"Poor me! I'm a member of a pinko group that nobody supports, so we have to rort the taxpayer to fund our publicity."

That's what you're saying. And it's bullshit.

Labour has far more resources at its disposal, both in and out of Government. Unions are taxpayer-subsidised. Unions directly and indirectly contribute to Labour's campaigns. A convenient circle? Perhaps. A source of funding? Absolutely.

Labour does far more to support unions than National has ever done for individual financial contributors to the National Party. So while you're talking about the risk of organisations peddling influence in politics through money, you might as well look seriously at excluding unions, and all incorporated societies, from making donations to political parties, and ensuring that no third party interest group--including the EBs and the unions--advertise on behalf of a political party, or political issues, during an election campaign.

Labour in Government is far more resourced than National in opposition. Labour has all of Ministerial Services, which it can staff with Labour hacks. Which it does. Labour has any number of government-appointed boards which it can use to appoint left wing friends and party members to. Which it does.

The Left is not disadvantaged in terms of its access to resource. It is simply abusing state resources, and using state funding of political parties as an excuse for their corruption.

The Left might have the idea that the National Party is full of excessively rich people trading favours in exchange for donations. Couldn't be further from the truth. Unlike Labour, it's a broad-based group of people who work their arses off, without the benefit of union contributions, to sell cakes and raffle tickets to pay for campaigns.

That's how you run a political party. If you're too lazy to make that kind of contribution, you shouldn't be in politics.

Posted by Insolent Prick : 8/17/2006 12:27:00 PM