Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Election funding: the Brethren hack again

The 2005 election saw the Exclusive Brethren exploit a flaw in our electoral laws. While advertisements in support of a candidate or party must be authorised and count against that candidate or party's election expenses, there are no such restrictions on advertisements opposing a party. The Brethren were thus able to spend a million dollars on an anonymous negative campaign in support of the National Party, effectively helping National circumvent its spending limit in an effort to buy power. The need to plug this loophole and properly enforce party spending caps is one reason why we need the Electoral Finance Bill (and one reason why National vigorously opposes it).

Now the "Brethren hack" is back - this time in local body politics. Auckland's City Vision blog reports that an anonymous billboard campaign is being waged against their candidates. And as in 2005, it's being funded by rich right-wingers eager to buy an election:

Since then there have been numerous sightings of these huge billboards being illegally towed around Auckland, with a large number visible in these crucial final days of the election.

It would appear that the vehicles towing around these anonymous billboards are owned by the Giltrap Prestige car dealership, which is in turn owned by Colin Giltrap (pictured), who with around $300 million is one of Auckland's wealthiest residents.

This makes lots of sense because Giltrap is a motorsport enthusiast who blames City Vision for the canning of the V8 motor race in central Auckland (forgetting that it was the voters who resoundingly gave the V8 race the thumbs down in 2004).

The Local Electoral Act 2001 is far more less restrictive than the Electoral Act, allowing third-party advertising in support of candidates if it is endorsed by "an organisation or body representing residents or ratepayers in the community or district in which the advertisement is published". But as with the Electoral Act, it fails to control negative campaigning, and is in fact completely silent on other electoral advertising, with not even a requirement for disclosure. So, Colin Giltrap's actions are likely to be entirely legal. At the same time, it raises the same questions as the Brethren did about collusion, anonymous smears, and circumvention of spending limits (how much are John Banks and the CitRats spending?)

I've already commented on the need for greater transparency around donations in local body elections. Now it looks like we also need to plug the Brethren hack there as well. The rich in this country have no commitment to democracy, and have shown their willingness to circumvent existing limits in order to buy power. If we want our democracy to survive, we have to stop them.

Correction: The ever watchful Graeme Edgeler has pointed out that the Local electoral Act is in fact less restrictive than the Electoral Act (which completely bans third party ads in support of candidates or parties). Mea culpa. I've had a longstanding impression of greater restrictiveness due to the absence of any equivalent of the Electoral Act's s221A (which allows other election advertisements with suitable disclosure) - which is obviously incorrect, particularly when I'm arguing that the absence of such restrictions is a loophole. This does not, of course, affect my point here - that the wealthy are seeking to exploit loopholes in the law to buy power, just as they did in the 2005 general election.