Friday, August 11, 2006

Public funding?

So, the other shoe has dropped on the illegal election spending issue, with Labour pushing for public funding of political parties, and Michael Cullen talking of the possibility of retrospective legislation to validate past spending. I'm of two minds about this. On the question of public funding, it will guarantee a level playing field, allowing parties to compete on their merits (however defined) rather than the depth of their pockets and the wealth of their backers. And it will decrease the ability of the rich to buy themselves political power - which can only be a Good Thing (if they want political power, they can vote like everybody else). But it’s not all good. DPF argues that

It's good for a party to have to work hard to earn its money. It's good that when you are out of touch with your supporters that your funding declines. It's good that your sucess is linked to how many dedicated activists will sweat and toil for the party. They all help keep a party honest.

Of course, he's being disingenuous - while supposedly talking about the grassroots, what he's really supporting is the "right" of rich supporters to buy themselves undue power and influence - but glaring inequalities of wealth aside, he has a point. The trend over the past twenty years (or longer) in New Zealand politics has been for New Zealand political parties to become increasingly divorced from their membership. The grassroots are a source of funds, and people to do the donkey work at election time, but are otherwise completely sidelined and have very little influence on policy (they're not even allowed to talk about it at party conferences anymore - or at least, not in public; it might take things "off message"). I don't think this is a good trend - grassroots involvement makes democracy strong - and public funding will strengthen, rather than weaken it.

If we want to limit the power of the rich, then we can do it through greater electoral transparency - lower declaration thresholds, a ban on accepting donations unless the source is known, and a ban on "laundering" donations so as to disguise the source. Force party backers to put their mouths where their money is, rather than hiding behind bank cheques, special purpose trusts, and a knowing wink. But I'm not sure that we can level the playing field without further divorcing parties from their grassroots (though fixing the laws around broadcasting funding so that it is equal, or proportional to the number of electorate candidates, rather than a self-fulfilling prophecy based on the last election result would be a good start).

As for retrospective validation, I think there's a clear need. Much of the spending in question was explicitly authorised by Parliamentary Services, and the parties should not have to pay for their mistake. And as Cullen points out, this isn't just a matter of the last election - the Auditor-General's opinion affects every past election. Unless National wants to find itself repaying debts from the 90's, they'd be wise to support such a move. The problem is that Labour will try and use this to write itself a "get out of jail free" card on its pledge cards, which is something I disagree strongly with. Any retrospective validation should only apply to spending that was within the guidelines at the time - not to egregious abuses which were explicitly in violation of those guidelines.

Unfortunately, National's fundamentalist stance and its traditional inability to cooperate with other parties and build coalitions is likely to mean that Labour will get its way. Oh, for a smart opposition...


I have always been a fan of a low cap on donations- perhaps in the range $100. Large enough that a few hundred (or thousand) donors can accrue a large sum of mulah, small enough that it would be hard for even the most venal politician to be "bought" with a C-note.

Or, we go with the "all the money you want" model, but force every elected official to wear, any time they appear in public representing their office, a "Nascar-like" jump-suit emblazoned with the logos of their donors. Logo size would be proportional to the size of the donation, and the opposition would get to choose the placement. Yes, I know, completely unrealistic, but it provides a nice mental picture. Perhaps I am extra cynical about campaign finance having come from the States. :)

(PS- nice blog, I get great enjoyment from reading it. I am the Yank farmed you met at the wedding aniversary a few weeks back)

Posted by Anonymous : 8/11/2006 03:05:00 PM

I suspect the call to directly fund political parties is something of a Machiavellian diversion by Labour...

Posted by Lewis Holden : 8/11/2006 03:53:00 PM

That's an intriguing call - retrospective validation of spending "but for" the pledge card...

Like you, however, I can't see it gaining much traction.

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 8/11/2006 05:24:00 PM

With National sitting on a huge nest egg left over from the last election, they will go into the next absolutely rolling in so much dosh that I predict they will have to start spending it at least six months in advance just to get rid of it all.

In the meantime the have visions of reducing Labour to penuary. So much for buying elections.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/11/2006 06:41:00 PM

It is not correct to say Labour has made a mistake. Parties can always check if they have any doubt whatsoever about their planned use of taxpayer money.

The Labour Party won't recover from these lies because what they are saying can be proved to be lies. Watch Labour/Greens/NZFirst burn on this, Watch This Space.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/11/2006 08:23:00 PM

You could cap party spending on advertising during elections and also cap private spending that explicitly attacks a party or supports a party.

I think retrospective legislation on elections is a crime against our system. It is like passing a law to remove elections.

the solution is to act like the commerce commission - find the biggest offender and make an example of them - whatever it takes to make everyone else think twice before cheating again.

And everyone should be judged by the rules of the time no matter what excuse there may be. It was their job to make damn sure they were obeying the rules (or at least were not the worst offenders) and if everyone makes sure there after you have solved the problem.

(BTW I actually voted for them - but it is the principle that matters here)

Posted by Genius : 8/11/2006 08:45:00 PM

Equal, limited public funding for parties would be a very good thing, if that was the _only_ funding parties could use. Volunteer labour from grassroots supporters would then become absolutely vital.

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 8/11/2006 09:53:00 PM

Graeme: I'd have thought it was blindingly obvious - accept that you can't very well squick people for acting in good faith according to what they were told were the rules at the time, while ensuring that spending outside those rules can still be punished. But National have backed themselves into a corner with their absolutist stance, so that they now won't be able to pursue that solution - and Labour will now be able to retrospectively validate its actions. Sure, there'll be a whiff of residual dodginess - but they will successfully be able to paint it as being no different from other parties approved spending, and national will be left railing in the wilderness with the Ian Wisharts and the other fruitcakes.

Again, I'd like a smart opposition, so that the government was actually held to account every once in a while, rather than a dumb one which practically conspires to prevent it.

Genius: this isn't retrospective validation of anything to do with elections; its to do with the proper spending of public money. And I really don't have a problem with it, provided it is done properly.

CMT: money talks louder than labour. That's the problem in a nutshell, actually, but its true of donations vs volunteers as well. Without the pressure of funding drying up, the grassroots will have even less control over "their" party.

And OTOH, this will really hurt the rich parties, which is a strong reason to be in favour of it.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/11/2006 11:04:00 PM

so that's clear then
I/S is a socialist and as long as the rich are punished all is well
savant! that's his name.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/11/2006 11:11:00 PM

Anon: I regard it as axiomatic that government should be determined by who gets the most votes - not who has the most money. If that makes me a socialist, then its a label I'm happy to bear.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/12/2006 12:24:00 AM

> this isn't retrospective validation of anything to do with elections

I guess the question is if labour had not been able to use that funding what would they have done instead.

If the answer is they would not have sent out the pledge card the consequence would quite likely have been them loosing the election (ie not having more than national on election day). The pledge card must get votes otherwise people would not do it.

Now if one party - particularly the one in government can fiddle the system just enough to ensure that happens then make their actions legal after the fact - then your elections are fundamentally compromised.

This would mater EVEN IF labor did not know it was breaking hte rules - rather like if you have a running race and one guy wins the race in world record time but gets a positive drug test the answer "i didn’t know" doesn't make is race time a valid world record. And the assumption remains it was his job to figure out what was and wasn't illegal.

In general in these sorts of cases someone is being cheeky ('cheeky whitey collar') - a bit like if you use a company credit card to pay for your night out - you know others do it sometimes you know that the boss "might" not care and consider it a fringe benefit,

but you know it isn't your money and in the off chance someone up the chain gets annoyed at you then you are open for a lot of trouble.

Posted by Genius : 8/12/2006 08:01:00 AM

Money talks louder than labour _if_ there's enough of it. If party spending is capped at a sufficiently low level, it will compeltely rely on volunteers in order to function effectively. Eg, printing and delivering leaflets - a party that has volunteers do the delivery can afford to get several times more printed than one that has to pay for distribution as well.

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 8/13/2006 10:35:00 AM

My reflections on this point over on my blog:

"Shifting goalposts
It's a pity the recent discussion about the Parliamentary Leaders fund has become so politicised because its an interesting legal scenario in its own right. [...]"

Posted by Dean Knight : 8/14/2006 12:40:00 PM

You might turn the point around, and say that party activists might have more influence on politics if they did not spend all their time fundraising, and actually had time to discuss policy and strategy. The resource stranglehold of the current system means activists = fundraisers, and not a lot else.

DPF is pure spin, as ever - Tony does a nice dissection of it.

Jordan (not logging in on a public terminal)

Posted by Anonymous : 8/15/2006 02:58:00 PM

Jordan: the problem is that the lack of influence of the grassroots isn't because they have to spend all their time fundraising rather than wonking policy - its a conscious decision by Parliamentary parties and party heirarchies to sideline them. Currently, the parties are limited in their ability to do this, because they still need their members for money - so they have to at least pretend to listen sometimes. Remove that need, and the influence of the grassroots will be diminished even further.

I think there are definite advantages to public funding, at least if it is done right (a set amount per vote is certainly the most transparent, but risks creating a self-fulfilling prophesy). But there are disadvantages too, and we should be aware of them.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/15/2006 11:59:00 PM