Monday, March 19, 2007

Databases and electioneering

Saturday's Dominion Post reported that the National Party had spent $90,000 of its Parliamentary budget on a database system allowing them to track voters. The National Party is defending the spending on the basis that the database allows them to

do electoral surveys, get mail, do mail-outs, all those kind of things ... basically it's a database that enables them to communicate with their constituents.

and that this sort of communication is a core part of an MP's job. I agree entirely. Keeping track of constituent's concerns is something MPs ought to be encouraged to do, and this sort of database seems like just the tool they should be funding out of Parliamentary expenditure to do it. However, the Auditor-General may not agree.

As people may remember, last year in a review of Parliamentary Services advertising expenditure, the Auditor-General controversially ruled that if Parliamentary spending had any "electioneering" purpose whatsoever - if it was used to persuade a voter to vote in a particular way - then it was unlawful. Note that that's not "entirely", or even "substantially" - the ruling was that

any significant reference to electioneering is likely to "taint" the remainder of a publication or other communication (i.e. infect it with an electioneering purpose).

The Auditor-General only looked at advertising - but the same principle surely applies to other Parliamentary expenditure. The key question for the database then is whether it was used at election time. If it was, then the spending is clearly unlawful, and by its own standards, the National Party is morally obliged to pay the money back.

What this goes to show of course is just how mistaken the Auditor-General's ruling was. Explicit electioneering is one thing, but if MPs can't do core Parliamentary business such as running newsletters, holding public meetings, or communicating with their constituents for fear that someone somewhere might be persuaded to vote for them, then they pretty much can't do anything.


The issue here seems to be the principle of applying a very simple rule to a complex situation. Clearly almost everyone sees the pledge card as electioneering (even if you don't). And people may or may not see this item as electioneering (I don't care which way that falls). All you need is for someone to make a reasonable call one that obviously makes the pledge card illegal and may or may not make this one legal.

Anyway the concept of having a free for all (riding over privacy laws and encouraging annoying advertising and spam) seems rather more the domain of people who think unrestrained competition always causes cream to rise to the top.


Posted by Anonymous : 3/19/2007 05:56:00 PM

I disagree, and I would be very wary of this argument.
This same system has been used in the US for the past 2 election cycles, and don't be fooled - when they're talking about their "consituents", they mean not the people they serve, but those people who agree with them. It's sad to see so much dirty american political games being imported.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/19/2007 09:43:00 PM

unrestrained politics results in what many of us would term "dirty american politics" (and I think the USA has a long way to fall yet).


Posted by Anonymous : 3/19/2007 10:18:00 PM

I don't think National should not have spent the money, but I think it does make them look hypocritical. Either you can spend taxpayers money for political purposes or you can't. Most political parties will have a database of some sort. So what? I think the point you make about the AG is a good and valid one.

Posted by Chris : 3/20/2007 12:45:00 AM

What nonsense, Idiot. The A-G's ruling only related to communications with constituents, for a very sound reason. It is only communications and advertising that directly and materially affects a way that a person casts their vote. To apply all other expenditure that may have a political purpose would in effect rule out every activity of Government.

You're deliberately trying to beat up a bullshit story. That's like saying if Michael Cullen and Helen Clark have a cup of tea in her office on the 9th Floor, and the discussion veers into political matters, then the Labour Party should be liable for the entire accommodation costs of the PM's offices.

Posted by Insolent Prick : 3/20/2007 08:15:00 AM

Goodness IP, what a surprise. Seems your argument is yet another case of "it's different in our case".

The reason it is bullshit is because since losing an election after a very heftily funded campaign your party has been accusing everyone else of misappropriating tax payers' funds. Remember the "proudly paid for by [anonymous] National supporters" tags running on your bill boards last year? Well it seems National are not too proud to accept hand outs from hard working tax payers after all.

National used and uses considerable dollopes of tax payer money. They accuse others of doing this illigitamately but they have never themselves published an account of what usa they themselves have made of public funds.

So, what with the $100k you owe in GST and the $90k you should pay back from the leadership fund, this is beginning to add up a bit. Remember, nobody has said the other parties are obliged to pay back the PS fund. That has never been an issue. They have chosen to do so for political reasons, will National prove to be as honourable, I doubt it.

My challange to National would be this. If you are so damned squeaky clean publish your accounts. For example, I would be interested to see whether they indulged in push polling (which is *not* polling at all and should therefore be counted as electioneering).

Posted by Anonymous : 3/20/2007 10:14:00 AM

Idiot continues to try and portray the Auditor-General and Solicitor-General as moronic first year law and commerce students, and misrepresents the report.

But rather than even try to argue such silliness, I will point out that if Idiot is so convinced that the AG and SG got it wrong, he should be condemning the Labour Govt for voting against an amendment which would have stopped the Darnton v Clark lawsuit being wiped out. Because surely if the SG and AG got it so wrong, then the High Court would have ruled in their favour.

That was the only way to get a final resolution on the issue, yet strangely Labour seemed terrified of having it tested in court. Far easier to just attack the AG.

Posted by David Farrar : 3/20/2007 01:37:00 PM

I would like Labour to publish all it's documentation behind the decision to spend close to $1m on their election campaign from the PM's office budget.

Also they have admitted it was the third election they did so, but have not promised to repay that money back for the other two elections.

Also I would like to see accounts from Labour about the money they get from Unions and what policies the Unions have asked for in return.

And to use the US as an example is neither here nor there.

Voter participation is low between 50 - 60% from memory so elections are won by who can mobilise your base more than winning an outright majority of support from all voters.

It would of been a while since that occurred.

Also you can win in the US with less votes than your opponent due to the which states you win due to each state being assigned a value. In this sense it's still FPP.

In fact in all recent elections the red states have outnumbered the blue states by a large % of the country.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/20/2007 02:29:00 PM

Anon at 10:14am:

The National Party itself paid for 80% of the licensing fees for the software, to reflect the potentially political, rather than parliamentary role involved. The likelihood is that the National Party ended up subsidising its parliamentary activities.

You are yet another one of those filthy pinkos who fails to understand the difference between lawful and unlawful fundraising, and lawful and unlawful expenditure. National did not exceed its spending cap. Labour did, to a massive degree. National did not dip in to taxpayers' funds to fund its campaign. Labour did.

National used private money to pay for its campaign. So too did Labour.

It is a complete nonsense to claim that "nobody has been obliged to pay back the PS fund". The reason why no party is legally obliged to repay the money is that the Labour Party legislated to make its own illegal overspending of taxpayers money at the last election, legal. The only reason they are paying it back--and taking ten months to do it--is because of the massive public outcry at this huge rort of public money.

National did not receive a hand-out for taxpayers. National MPs are funded by Parliamentary services for legitimate communication with their constituents. Not even the Labour Party has questioned National's use of the software.

You want National to open its books on spending of parliamentary services money? Fine. I think that's an excellent move. Let's also see the skeletons in Labour's closet, along with the Greens, and New Zealand First.

As for how National spends its own money, paid for by National donors, that's entirely a matter for the National Party and its members.

Posted by Insolent Prick : 3/20/2007 02:41:00 PM

Incidentally, $500 grand sounds like a really crappy deal for a tracking database. Don't the Nats know they can download postgres for free and hire comp sci students to write sql for peanuts?

Posted by Danyl : 3/20/2007 03:03:00 PM

But that would stop the money go round.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/20/2007 03:29:00 PM

Surely all political parties are doing this? I know Labour is having a joyous time vacuuming up the voters National forgot in some North Island areas. The wonders of technology... and it's just going to get harder to track.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/20/2007 03:57:00 PM

"National did not receive a hand-out for taxpayers."

If you say so IP.

Let's see the PS and Leadership fund accounts. Remembering of course that the AG only reviewed three months of them.

The debate is not about six parties misunderstanding (deliberately or otherwise) the rules, the argument is about one party painting itself as squeaky clean and calling everyone else corrupt. The evidence is showing that things are not quite so clear cut as your average Joe Blow is being lead to believe.

Basically, put up or shut up, or even better, get everyone to clean up.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/20/2007 04:42:00 PM


I don't know what the National Party does with its Parliamentary Services funding. However, I do know that the Auditor General has ongoing oversight of the expenditure, and he hasn't had any problems with it. The AG didn't just look at the last three months prior to the election: he has ongoing oversight of PS expenditure every year.

Posted by Insolent Prick : 3/20/2007 05:59:00 PM


If that is what the debate is about then it is a stupid debate.

If you are a policeman and you are presented with two criminals you catch the one who committed the more serious crime first and worry about the other one later. If the other one wants to help with the procecution of the more serious criminal, then all the better.

Not that I have any issue with the public getting to see what public money was spent on of course.


Posted by Anonymous : 3/20/2007 06:08:00 PM