Friday, September 14, 2007

Election finance: hearings

While I was in Wellington yesterday I watched the Justice and Electoral Committee's hearing of submissions on the Electoral Finance Bill. It was interesting to see the committee in action and the various members using it as a vehicle for their particular spin - National's Chris Finlayson sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt by asking every submitter whether they knew that X was counted as an electoral advertisement (even when it was not the case), Charles Chauvel attempting to defend Labour's indefensible position around anonymous donations, and Chris Auchinvole being generally unctuous and slimy. What really impressed me though was the Greens' Metiria Turei, who asked every submitter who raised concerns about freedom of expression whether those concerns would be dealt with by a narrower definition of "electoral advertisement". The answer was almost always "yes", and its fairly clear that we're going to see some change in that area.

The Herald has a brief report on the submission by the Labour party (which naturally supported the bill), but they missed out the two most interesting submissions of the morning: those of Dr Paul Harris and of Business New Zealand. Dr Harris - the former CEO of the Electoral Commission - generally followed the Coalition for Open Government line of supporting the bill but criticising its numerous shortcomings and advocating for fixing them. In an interesting exchange, he refuted Chris Auchinvole's suggestion that the bill overly concentrated on the problems raised by the last election, pointing out that these problems had been around for years despite being highlighted in numerous reviews, and that the bill was finally an opportunity to fix them. He also demolished Charles Chauvel's attempt to defend "truly anonymous" donations, pointing out that the identity of the donor could be revealed after public disclosure. Left unstated was that the public just don't trust politicians on this - and with good reason, given the revelations of The Hollow Men.

Business New Zealand, on the other hand, simply made fools out of themselves. After a short presentation in which they attacked the proposed third party regime as a draconian restriction on freedom of expression which would limit their ability to represent their members, they were asked whether they had any recommendations on the level of the spending cap. They had none. On the definition of electoral advertising, they wanted to remove subclauses (ii) and (iii), leaving out anything other than explicit solicitations for votes, but even this was insufficient. Things really got ugly when they denied that there was any problem with the Brethren's colluding with National to circumvent spending limits, and their attempts to retreat behind process with cries of "insuffcient consultation" simply infuriated the committee further. As Meyt pointed out, the select committee process is public consultation, and it would have been better to have shown up with some suggestions as to how the committee could address their concerns, rather than simply mindless opposition.

Unfortunately, the Maori Party and United Future didn't take much of a role, so I was unable to judge where they stand. They're the swing votes on the committee, and their views will be crucial in determining amendments. But it looks like we'll have to wait a while to see where they stand.