Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Broadcasting allocations and public funding

The Electoral Commission has announced its initial broadcasting funding allocations for this year's election. Unlike last election, where they not only grouped the parties into broad classes, but also allocated different amounts of funding and time within each class, they have gone for a simple four-tier model: with the major parties getting a million dollars each, the larger minors (Greens, NZ First and Maori Party) getting $240,000, the smaller Parliamentary minors (ACT, Progressive, and United Future) $100,000, and the extra-Parliamentary minnows (everyone else, from the Alliance to the New World Order) $17,000 each. The exception is the Libertarianz, who having said they will not spend their allocation, get no actual money - something which may prevent them from using any broadcast advertising at all beyond their opening address, since parties are forbidden to spend their own money on advertising.

The allocation seems fair enough within the rules the Commission has to operate within (which require them to consider past electoral support and the number of MPs a party has in Parliament), but the problem is that those rules themselves are unfair and rigged in favour of the larger parties. I summarised the problem in my post on this issue last election:

[T]here is an unfortunate contradiction at the heart of our electoral broadcasting laws: we think money can buy elections, so we ban parties from using their own money for TV advertising and instead fund it out of a common pool. But then we rig the funding levels so as to favour those parties currently established - effectively perpetuating the status quo. And it doesn't help that the allocations are in part set by representatives of the two major parties, who share an interest in preventing anybody else from challenging them.
This should not be satisfactory to anyone who considers themselves a democrat. Free and fair elections require a level playing field - not one rigged to favour the status quo. This means that, at minimum, every party should be able to spend the same on broadcast advertising as everyone else - and at the moment, they can't. The allocations are a cap as well as a subsidy, meaning that e.g. ACT is allowed to spend only a tenth as much as Labour. You don't have to have a picture of Roger Douglas hanging over your bed to view that as unfair.

This system desperately needs to be reformed. Public funding or more equal distribution of the broadcasting funding is one part of that. But at the least, we should allow parties to spend the same amount of money, just as we do on other election expenses. Otherwise, we are stacking the electoral deck in favour of the status quo, behaviour we expect in a shitty Central Asian autocracy, not a democracy like New Zealand.