Monday, April 02, 2007

Campaigning for open government

Back in the late 70's and early 80's the Campaign for Open Government was a major driving force pushing for the adoption of the Official Information Act. Now they've got back together to push for another vital aspect of open government: electoral finance reform.

In order to properly hold our government to account, we need to know who is trying to buy them. Unfortunately, as seen in the last election, our laws in this area leave a lot to be desired. While the government is planning reform (and will likely introduce its bill to Parliament in the next few weeks), there's a lot of concern that they will not go far enough due to their vested interest in perpetuating the current system. Hence, a public campaign to push for a tougher law.

The Campaign for Open Government has five key ideas they'd like to see implemented:

  • A ban on anonymous donations;
  • A $5,000 individual annual donation limit;
  • Control of third-party electioneering;
  • Proper enforcement of the law; and
  • Greater transparency in public funding.

Of these, they admit that the third will be very tricky, raising as it does fundamental issues of freedom of speech. At the same time, preventing the rich from subverting our democracy by buying elections (as they clearly tried to do in 2005) is an important goal, and justifies at least disclosure and spending limits. As for barring collusion to subvert spending caps, I note that the US has laws about this, and it would be worth looking at them to see whether they are effective or not.

So, where do I join?


Odd that an organisation committed to 'open government' is pursuing policies designed primarily to prevent people communicating ideas to others.

If they 'control third-party electioneering' then they control your blog. Are you happy with this or are you just betting that those doing the controlling will be on your side?

Posted by Nigel Kearney : 4/02/2007 12:37:00 PM

Nigel: Hardly. Rather, they want to know who is communicating, and how much they're spending.

And I'm not "third party electioneering" - I'm media. Current electoral law makes it clear that news reporting and commentary does not qualify as electoral advertising. Unless established by a party for propaganda purposes, blogs clearly fall into this category.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 4/02/2007 12:45:00 PM

Where do you join?

There's some information at

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 4/02/2007 12:46:00 PM

I wonder what impact the $5000 individual donation cap would have?

Also how would you define whether a blog was media or not? For example Jordan is on Labour's National Council, yet he blogs of his own accord (despite accusations to the contrary). Many other bloggers are party members.

But all up I think this is a good move.

Posted by Span : 4/02/2007 01:11:00 PM

Nigel: The main point with their "control third party electioneering" seems to be related to the collusion bit, e.g. ensuring that should the Exclusive Brethern wish to campaign again they're better able to keep themselves divorced from the National Party.

Posted by Lewis Holden : 4/02/2007 02:03:00 PM

"preventing the rich from subverting our democracy by buying elections (as they clearly tried to do in 2005) is an important goal"

Don't you mean: "preventing the government of the day from subverting our democracy by buying elections with stolen taxpayers' money (as they clearly did in 2005) is an important goal"

Posted by Anonymous : 4/02/2007 03:07:00 PM

Heh. Why not both?

Posted by Lewis Holden : 4/02/2007 03:21:00 PM

I'd suggest a $5k limit on all personal political spending. This would include political party donations, campaigning, blogs, etc.

The only exceptions would be media that is a bona fide profitable business and publications that are impartial.

Most New Zealanders can't afford to spend anything like $5k on politics. Most normal bloggers spend nothing on their hobby, or maybe a few hundred dollars for domains, etc - so this would only affect wealthy people who wish to spend money buying votes.

Political parties should receive a reasonable level of state funding to be spent at their discretion. There is of course a grey area between government information and political advertising - I'd suggest an all party committee examine and pre-approve the former.

Finally, foreign funded political campaigning should be banned. Parties and other political organisations should be required to publish audited accounts.

Posted by Rich : 4/02/2007 04:24:00 PM

I have no problem with disclosure but that is only a small part of the proposal.

There is no principled way to distinguish between commentary and electioneering. You'll find out after you get prosecuted I guess. The Brethren pamphlets on health and education had about the same ratio of facts to propaganda as a typical episode of Campbell Live.

Lewis - I don't agree. They want to make what the Brethren did illegal even if they do it completely without talking to National at all. The unions can still coordinate with Labour of course.

It all sounds like incumbency protection to me. The whole idea of letting existing MPs regulate how people can campaign to be MPs is insidious.

There's nothing wrong with having no rules. The right has a money advantage and the left has a manpower advantage plus the media on their side. Rules that restrict only spending make a lopsided contest even more lopsided.

Posted by Nigel Kearney : 4/02/2007 04:36:00 PM

Well, we don't know exactly what the nature of the proposal (legislation, etc) vis third-parties is yet, so it's hard to say what they want to make illegal, if anything.

I wouldn't support legislation that made what the Brethern "did" illegal, but I would support legislation that required disclosure of the publishers of the pamphlets.

Posted by Lewis Holden : 4/02/2007 04:43:00 PM

As they say, 3rd party's the tricky bit, needs the most work.

My views will never see action, bit here they are anyway.

Government should fund the communication of policy statements by all parties as needed to get reasonable coverage. Every properly registered party should get equal space and time in that coverage by random allotment as needed. Other than that, parties should shut the hell up.

Individuals should do whatever they choose in their own time. Everyone and everything should plainly declare any funding arrangements.

Someone wants to spend millions promoting tax cuts? Let them put their name to it, declare costs, and let the electoral funding body ensure real tax policies are heard to a similar extent as needed to clear up any confusion.
Disingenuous late spending should remain illegal.

Posted by tussock : 4/02/2007 04:45:00 PM

I agree with COG that NZ's current election finance laws are incredibly bad and need reform. I also agree with COGs' belief that 'election finance laws should not be designed and decided by the politicians and parties that they are intended to control. The laws should be the result of wide debate and public input'. I assume therefore that COG will be condemning Labour's current negotiations with minor parties to reform the system behind closed doors.

Posted by Bryce Edwards : 4/02/2007 06:10:00 PM

Here is my suggestion - a state organization designed to present information in an unbiased way for all parties.

They present the information, in TV debates radio ads billboards and so forth - funding everything and picking what they will spend the money on (according to a strict set of rules).

Otherwise electoral spending can be handled like the smacking debate - it is illegal but police are trusted not to prosecute unless it gets serious.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/02/2007 06:21:00 PM

"The right has a money advantage and the left has a manpower advantage plus the media on their side."

Gosh! And there was me thinking that a democracy was intended to be run by the side with the manpower advantage. Balancing that out with money is not democratic at all.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/02/2007 06:51:00 PM

Lewis says: "I wouldn't support legislation that made what the Brethern "did" illegal, but I would support legislation that required disclosure of the publishers of the pamphlets."

That is the law now.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/03/2007 09:54:00 AM

Anon - No, not exactly, and the law is badly enforced. It took some time after the first pamphlets came out before members of the EB came out and said "we're behind this". From memory, most of the names on the pamphlets were from people with little or no association with the EB.

I have no problem with 3rd party campaigns, so long as they're open about who is behind them. That applies equally to the EB, Unions or any other lobby group.

Posted by Lewis Holden : 4/03/2007 11:18:00 AM

Isn't (sufficient) public funding of parties (based on the number of votes in the last election) a much easier solution, rather than risking compromising free speach. I think that will be the ultimate result if 'buying of votes' is a problem in the first place.

Public funding ensures that parties are not totally dependent on external funding, and can thus afford to say no to money that risk compromising their integrity.

Maybe it should be combined with a independent agency that disclose financial support to parties, but that is voluntary for each party. That way voters can decide whether they wish to vote for parties that don't publish their financial support.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/03/2007 03:58:00 PM

Lewis - of course it took a few days for the EB to come out and admit the pamphlets were theirs, because they were trying to break the law. The police then found "prima facie" that the EB broke the law and could have been successfully prosecuted, but this would have meant also prosecuting Heather Simpson of the Prime Minister's Office for more serious offences, and so no prosecution was taken against the EB.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/03/2007 04:45:00 PM

> Isn't (sufficient) public funding
> of parties (based on the number of
> votes in the last election)

Riiiiight ... because democracy is helped by protecting the incumbents?

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 4/03/2007 07:32:00 PM

"My views will never see action"

don't be so sure tussock , think ur quite on the ball myself , sure others would say so to ,

you have fairness, common scene, and reason going with you ...

Posted by Anonymous : 4/04/2007 06:55:00 AM

what is interesting is that you can have ideas (maybe not tussock's - but who knows... maybe it is one of these) that the majority of people support but also the majority also feels the law will never get passed.

Maybe these are isues where no one feels passionate enough to punish those who don't agree with the public, OR where an adverserial government system (or maybe even a working proportional system) is just not likely to offer a solution.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/04/2007 07:14:00 AM

Out of interest: would the people here who champion the EBs rights to do what they did also champion the right of the Chinese govt to spend $15 million (more than all parties combined) on a huge campaign aimed at ensuring National was not elected?

Are you going to accept that negative campaigning is campaigning (and should be regulated if campaigning is)?

Or are you not?

Posted by Mr Wiggles : 4/04/2007 10:00:00 AM