Monday, June 18, 2007

Electoral funding symposium: the party hacks

On Friday I attended the Transparency International / VUW Institute of Policy Studies symposium on The Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns. I've already blogged about the morning session, from political scientists, here.

The afternoon session was turned over to representatives of political parties. Unlike the morning, which was informative and interesting, it was mostly a disappointing exercise in partisan political hackery, in which politicians and party officials spouted their talking points for the (absent) media with little effort to engage in the debate. The effect was more akin to intellectual spam than a two-way conversation - something made quite obvious by National Party president Judy Kirk spamming herself across the room during the lunch break - and IMHO they contributed little to the overall event.

Steven Joyce (former National party General Manager) basically defended the status quo. While claiming that he wanted to see anonymous donations curbed, he then defended the current $10,000 disclosure threshold as perfectly reasonable, and opposed any attempt to lower it. He called the Coalition for Open Government's suggested $500 threshold a "ridiculously low" level of support - which I think says more about his utter disconnection from the vast majority of voters (to whom $500 is a substantial amount of money) than anything else. On state funding he was simply self-contradictory - he first said that funding should mirror public support and pooh-poohed the idea of equal funding as implying that all parties were of equal merit, then complained about the current broadcasting allocation rules because they mirrored public support (in particular, National's lack of public support at the 2002 election). When later called on this during the questions, he suggested that the problem was that the broadcasting allocation looked at historical levels of support rather than current polling - but its hard to imagine him not screaming bloody murder if National had been given funding consistent with its dismal polling in 2002. Amidst all the hackery, he did make one interesting point: that he thought the next election would be fought in cyberspace, via YouTube and email campaigns. This style of campaigning is more or less free, meaning that it would be uncontrolled under current laws (and that's without even getting into the jurisdictional issues).

Richard Northey (former Labour MP) gave a presentation so boring it almost put me (and much of the audience) to sleep. This may have been intentional, as somewhere in there he advocated getting NZPost to run elections, on the basis of the excellent work done by the Electoral Enrolment Centre (somehow, outsourcing a vital democratic function to corporate control, even if the corporation is state-owned, doesn't seem like a good idea to me). He also dropped the bombshell that an "anonymous" donation was one where a businessman handed you a large check and said "I'm anonymous" (the Electoral Act disagrees). But he also made some interesting points about the duration of spending caps. Back in 1984, when he was running for Parliament, the then $5,000 limit paid for everything a candidate might need - hoardings, newspaper ads, flyers, direct mail, a voter tracking system, and the drinks to celebrate / drown your sorrows afterwards. Now, the $20,000 candidate limit may not, particularly in large rural electorates with five seperate nespapers. If you had raised more money, then you would spend it before the three month limit, on preparing the ground - something we are seeing more and more of in recent elections. His conclusion was that a three-month limit was more suited to an era when there were "short, sharp" election campaigns, rather than the modern age of the "permanent campaign".

Doug Woolerton (NZ First MP) laid out his party's position - support for greater disclosure, opposition to state funding - and noted particularly that the candidate spending rules needed to be clarified as soon as possible in the wake of the High Court ruling in the Peters-Clarkson electoral petition. He also whined that the Auditor-General's report into parliamentary spending meant that Parliamentary Services was "paralysed" and was refusing to sign cheques for advertising any more - a comment which generated the only media coverage of the symposium.

Dr Russel Norman (Green co-leader) presented his party's position, which is generally similar to that of the Coalition for Open Government. He was also enthusiastic about the idea of getting a Citizen's Jury to resolve the long-term shape of our electoral funding regime.

Dr Whatarangi Winiata (Maori Party President) gave a long-winded and tangled speech which lost the audience even more thoroughly than Richard Northey. He displayed a basic ignorance of the legal framework which wasn't exactly encouraging. If it was supposed to illuminate where the Maori Party stood, it failed utterly.

Murray Smith (United Future VP) gave a broad speech, focusing more on his party's view of the general principles which should underpin the law, rather than specific policies. However, he did reveal a few: he supported imposing a spending cap of $100,000 on third-party campaigns, and opposed distortions in the funding regime which favoured larger parties over smaller ones (for example, the broadcasting funding regime, which not only gives larger parties more, but also handicaps small parties by forbidding them from spending as much as the larger ones). He also suggested allowing greater discretion in the use of broadcasting funds - for example, allowing parties to spend them on newspaper advertising rather than solely on TV or radio.

Gary Mallett (ACT) expressed his disappointment that we were even having a debate on the topic, and gave an absolutist rant about freedom of speech. This was neatly countered by Therese Arseneau in the questions, where she pointed out that freedom of speech around elections must be tempered by the principles of political equality and popular control - values ACT does not give a rat's arse about.

Judy Kirk (National Party President) echoed the National party's talking points, declared that we needed a "permissive regime" around donations, and opposed extending the spending limits to cover the whole of election year (translation: she has a pot of money and she wants to use it). She also argued that the penalties for breaching the law were too low, and supported smaller parties getting a larger share of broadcasting funding.

Mike Williams (Labour Party president) reeled off the Labour talking points, which were pretty much what has been leaked so far. Nothing new there either.

One interesting point emerged from the subsequent floor discussion. Right-wing parties expressed strong concerns about the politicisation of the funding rules, and clearly feared that the new regime would explicitly set out to disadvantage them. However, they were also united in their rejection of a citizen's jury - a democratic mechanism which would remove the potential for politicisation by putting the decision where it belongs: in the hands of the people. You could see this as ignorant - some of those parties were utterly clueless about what a citizen's jury would involve - or as merely stupid. Or you could see it as very revealing: the right may hate and fear the left, but at the end of the day they're still politicians and can be bargained with and bought off. Whereas real democratic control might actually result in some real change...


via ... email campaigns

Oh great. Political spam.

I guess the Unsolicited Electronic Messages Act 2007 was deliberately drafted to exclude political messages?

Posted by Rich : 6/18/2007 05:03:00 PM

Gee, so snide bitchiness aside (and talking about political spam) the hams expressed a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Christmas dinner? Colour me shocked, surprised and outraged -- especially when every one of them should have been facing criminal prosecutions, not varying degrees of public embarrassment over their rorting of the public purse.

And, sorry, I don't really have a lot of enthusiasm for a "citizen's jury" for one very simple reason - it won't be any more binding that the rows of politically unpalatable Commissions etc. gathering dust in the General Assembly Library.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 6/18/2007 05:27:00 PM

Craig: And, sorry, I don't really have a lot of enthusiasm for a "citizen's jury" for one very simple reason - it won't be any more binding that the rows of politically unpalatable Commissions etc. gathering dust in the General Assembly Library.

It would however have rather more moral force behind it than a Royal Commission. Of course, a government could simply ignore it - but the political price for doing so would I think be higher.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/18/2007 05:32:00 PM

and gave an absolutist rant about freedom of speech

But this is a freedom of speech issue, I/S.

Simply put, if I want to spend money advertising in favour of (or against) a political party, any attempt to prevent or ration that is a violation of my rights.

Likewise, if I want to organise marches, rallies, protests, leaflet drops etc. any attempt to curtail my activities would be a violation of my right to free speech.

All this represents is an attempt by political parties to impelement rationing of political expression. I can't imagine a concept more toxic to the idea of a liberal democracy.

Posted by Anonymous : 6/18/2007 05:48:00 PM

To be fair to Joyce - he is favouring a hard $10,000 limit, rather than the soft $10,000 limit we presently have (with donations through trusts of sums far greater than $10,000).

I didn't see, but am told the look on Mike Williams' face when Northey told everyone the Labour definition of anonymous, was well worth the price of admission... and DPF thought a partially-privatised electoral system was pretty funny.

I didn't want to take up everyone's time relitigating the Auditor-General's report (further) so didn't ask Woolerton (or anyone else), but you've got to wonder what the point of the bit in the validating legislation that was supposed to put in place temporary rules that would be workable for the year ahead if it wasn't to allow Parliamentary Service to operate as they always had (not explicit votes, members or money? pay up.).

To be fair to Gary Mallet, his response to Therese Arseneua was reasonably pithy (yes there were problems at the last election - but only because we ban anonymous speech, and unlimited campaigning and allow some public funding).

To be fair to Mike Williams - he did make a strong Labour Party case (opposed to the expressed Labour Parliamentary Party view) for public funding.

And opposition to the citizen jury concept was generally on the basis that Parliament was democratic - a rationale you at least seemed to like when opposing the sending of s 59 repeal to a referendum (something at least as democratic as a citizens' jury).

Posted by Graeme Edgeler : 6/18/2007 08:17:00 PM

Graeme: I think NZ First problems are with risk-averse public servants. IIRC, National complained a little about them too, to which I can only say that they have been very effectively hoist by their own petard.

I'm just more disgusted with the levels of self-interest on display from our politicians. Not surprised, just disgusted that they can't leave their shit at the door for one afternoon. And if they're wondering why politicians are held in such low esteem, this is a perfect example.

WRT citizen juries its not just a matter of them being democratic. One thing the parties and the public are united on (for different reasons) is the danger of leaving decisions in this area to politicians. A citizen's jury is a way of taking the decision out of the self-interested, venal hands of politicians, and putting it squarely where it belongs: in the hands of the people. Because it's our democracy, not theirs, and the funding and disclosure rules should serve the interests of the voters - not of politicians.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 6/18/2007 11:30:00 PM


Every member of a democratic society is invested with individual, inviolable rights - one of which is the right to freedom of expression.

You can't just arbitrarily decide to curtail the rights of others - no matter how many people vote for it. Well, you can, but that doesn't make it right.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 6/19/2007 12:00:00 AM

To be clear - that's not because they're members of a democratic society, it's because they're human beings. Just in case you thought I meant that rights were things that Governments bestow upon people.

Posted by Duncan Bayne : 6/19/2007 02:24:00 AM

"A citizen's jury is a way of taking the decision out of the self-interested, venal hands of politicians, and putting it squarely where it belongs: in the hands of the people."

This citizen jury should be as large as possible. The whole electorate in fact. So bring in BINDING referendums as the utlimate citizen jury.

No political party is willing to set up a binding referendum so the chance of a citizen jury having a say is about 0.001%

Neither the political left or the right is interested in divesting jurisdictional control to the people.

Posted by Anonymous : 6/19/2007 06:21:00 AM


Libel is a freedom of speech issue too, but that still means that one view on that matter is extreme - and a place for absolutist

Out of interest: as a libertarian, what's your take on the selling of votes? Do you think it should be legal for ACT and I to contract that I'll vote for them for $5? I'm just wondering how far your faith in the sacred right to contract to do anything and in the free market goes.

Posted by Mr Wiggles : 6/19/2007 12:06:00 PM

"Just in case you thought I meant that rights were things that Governments bestow upon people."

Oh, Duncan, for once we agree! Obviously governments don't create rights.

Societies do.

Social constructs such as "private property" lead to rights involving such property. See, for example, the very different property rights that exist in NZ now with the property rights that existed here 300 years ago.

(No, I'm not a naive communist who denies that personal property existed in classical maori society - but it was not the same as the notional of private property we use here and now).

Posted by Mr Wiggles : 6/19/2007 12:12:00 PM

"Obviously governments don't create rights. Societies do. "

It is such a relief that all those societies that treat women as chattels, approve of honour killings, imprisonment and killing of homosexual need not be criticised, as the "victims" don't have rights because the society hasn't created it.

Glad it's clear now. Sean basically you believe there is no objective basis for rights, in which case it's just luck if you live in a society that "gives" you any, tribalism by any other name.

We could always truly put political funding in the hands of the people, and let people choose to pay for political parties - have all donations over a set amount transparent and that will be that.

The fact that some political parties get less (and want to force others to pay for them) and others get more, is a function of the extent to which parties enthuse people to be members, supporters or donors. Yes it is a function of wealth, but then donors don't steal the money they are giving - the state has to take its money by force and all political funding favours incumbents (who vote for the system).

Posted by Libertyscott : 6/19/2007 11:02:00 PM

Sean, libel is not a freedom at all. You are confused. First, it doesn't exist having been replaced with defamation via the Defamation Act. Second, one is never free to defame someone. You are free to speak to the limits of defamation. once oyu step over that line the freedom is removed from you.

Posted by Gooner : 6/20/2007 10:16:00 PM