Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Election funding: food for thought

One of the advantages of the blogosphere is that it can provide a platform for people with specialist knowledge to disseminate it to a wider audiance, so informing public debate. Over on Liberation, Bryce Edwards is doing exactly that, with a lengthy series on Debunking myths about party finance in NZ, based on his 2003 PhD thesis Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation (available from Canterbury uni library, for anyone really interested).

While the post titles may not give much comfort to those of us wanting to reform the system, there's definitely food for thought there.


Heh, ACT a corporate party.

Thanks I/S, I needed a good laugh :)

Posted by andrewfalloon : 4/17/2007 05:00:00 PM

Bryce accurately skewers some caricatures (that corporate funding flows to National and not Labour, for example).

But in places his arguments outrun in facts. Yes, electoral regulations lead to the discovery of loopholes. But he seems to be jumping from that the claiming that regulation is always ineffective, and that's just false.

Tax laws also always lead to discovery of loopholes, but that doesn't make tax laws ineffective. It just means that they need to evolve and adapt. The trick is not to attempt perfection, but to keep the loopholes small and plug them up if they start to get big.

Posted by Mr Wiggles : 4/17/2007 05:22:00 PM

Sorry, I meant:

"in places his arguments outrun his facts"

Posted by Mr Wiggles : 4/17/2007 05:23:00 PM

Hi Sean

The analogy of loopholes in tax law and electoral law is often used by the proponents of regulation. However, loopholes in tax law are relatively easier to fix for much, much greater benefit. Unlike tax loopholes, party funding loopholes are never solved, leading to a crazy and futile chase to plug the gaps. The unintended consequences of trying to stem the funding tide are often worse than the problem they seek to solve.

Posted by Bryce Edwards : 4/17/2007 05:36:00 PM


I give you credit for being intellectually honest enough to link to somebody who systematically destroys, on the basis of actual evidence, your entire arguments on electoral reform.

I don't agree with all of the statements that Bryce makes, but at least he approaches the issue on the basis of sound evidence-based enquiry, rather than the hysterical, self-interested nonsense from the Labour Party.

Posted by Insolent Prick : 4/17/2007 06:15:00 PM

I/S, I'm curious if this means you will be modifying your views on regulation and/or rebutting Bryce's (impressive) series of posts?

Posted by Unknown : 4/17/2007 08:15:00 PM

I'm not especially impressed by Bryce's arguments. An average of _only_ about $2 million is donated by business in election year? It might not seem terribly extravagant to him, but it's a staggering amount that dwarfs the campaign budgets of the smaller parties. And Labour gets a share of the corporate pie? Big surprise there - the differences between the big two are pretty minor. Of course the correlation between budget and votes isn't 100% - nobody is claiming money is the only factor. That's a very long way from proving that money is irrelevant.

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 4/17/2007 09:33:00 PM

Hi Commie Mutant Traitor

I'm sorry if I've given the impression that I think that money in politics is 'irrelevant' - that's certainly not my belief. But the debate has so far operated on the assumption that money is absolutely critical to the party system - basically that it's the only factor, like you say. I'm just trying to correct that imbalance.

I suspect that some people (such as you?) would argue that any amount of funding from business is "staggering", whether it's $200,000 or $10m. Nonetheless, my argument is that, viewed historically, business donations are on the decline in real terms (or certainly not increasing - which is how some commentators imply). Do you have any evidence to the contrary?



Posted by Bryce Edwards : 4/17/2007 10:05:00 PM


It's not that funding is critical or the only factor, it's that it seems unfair to many of us, even some of the ones who have the funding. I'm concerned that the size of a party's membership is often outweighed by the size of their budget, so a small but rich party is seen as being the same size as a large but relatively poor party. Or alternatively, a huge pile of $100 donations is dwarfed by a couple of $1M ones, and the media uncritically accept that the two parties are "the same size". And since voters, like businesses, prefer to back winners, the bigger party loses votes to the rich one.

Personally, the party I support is often in a position where we have as many party members and activists, especially at election time, as parties that are supposedly much bigger than us. They're definitely much better funded, especially considering the number of employees I meet while volunteering (our volunteer roles are often paid ones in other parties). So my bias is naturally towards membership over funding.

Posted by Moz : 4/18/2007 10:55:00 AM

Hi Moz. I hoping that Moz is short for Morrissey!

I appreciate your comment. I used to argue exactly the same thing. My point here is not to be patronising, but to say that I'm sympathetic to that argument, but I no longer think it adds up.

A lot of the problems that you identify come out of the very unequal society that we live in where there is a vast disparities of wealth, influence and a media that is against progressive political advancement. That is the problem - the details of the party funding system are just a symptom of this. I no longer believe we can change society by trying to change this symptom - in fact I now think it's a counterproductive programme. I'll post more on this later (when I have time!), but for the moment I'll just remind you that part of my argument is that smaller leftwing parties actually need good policies and proper organisations to succeed in politics. Money isn't of such great importance. I'm trying to back this argument up in my Myth series. I don't believe that leftwing parties benefit from state funding. It actually has all sorts other negative implications for them.



Posted by Bryce Edwards : 4/18/2007 11:49:00 AM

I am unconvinced by the claim that "Unlike tax loopholes, party funding loopholes are never solved".

Your only arguments that regulation is ineffective are (a) it's failed in the past via anonymous trusts and stealing parliamentary funding and (b) it required MPs to support a system that polices themselves.

The responses are that

(a) it's worked in the past too: look at failure to discluse via anonymous trusts for example, it didn't stop you gathering all that data for your thesis, did it?. This suggests that a more pro-active approach of fixing the regulations when they stop working will do a great deal of good.

(b) MPs will support a system that polices Those Other Bastards from the other parties: besides which our MPs usually (not always, but usually) display and large amount of honest public-mindedness.

Posted by Mr Wiggles : 4/18/2007 12:03:00 PM

Bryce: part of my argument is that smaller leftwing parties actually need good policies and proper organisations to succeed in politics. Money isn't of such great importance.

I agree about the good policies, they also need good media managers and a variety of other things. I've also been in a volunteer policy development group, and it was really hard. Not just reaching agreement, but because we desperately needed researchers who could work during office hours when the information was available/ accessible. That's a funding problem :) There are many other things that come down to funding that make it really hard for a low-funding party to be effective. Let alone things like NGOs and so on that would like a voice, but often either can't afford it or won't be heard.

I suppose I'm in the "just not convinced" group - I more agree with you that parties are funded already in NZ than that it shouldn't be done.

I'm very interested in why you think that regulating spending cannot work, more so than in the argument that money doesn't matter as much as some people think it does.

I'm almost a bigot on the "money matters" front. While I enjoy laughing at (say) mandarin speaking students hired by right wing looney parties to campaign in ethnic communities, I also resent that we really scrape to get reliable translations of much material, just because we don't have many volunteer translators (just lots of native speakers who laugh at bad translations).

Posted by Moz : 4/18/2007 06:36:00 PM

Does it really matter that business donations are not increasing when the status quo is an order of magnitude greater than small parties that don't appeal to businesses can scrape together?

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 4/19/2007 11:37:00 AM