Monday, September 28, 2009

Election funding: "Reform" for the rich

The government has released its proposals for the "reform" of the electoral finance regime in the wake of the Electoral Finance Act. Unfortunately they're very much a backwards step. Reading the proposal document [DOC], the status quo is retained largely intact, with key issues (for example the third party regime and the length of the regulated period) kicked to "further consultation". But there's also some regressive steps. The two most important problems are:

  • No change to the existing transparency regime or donation thresholds; and
  • increased spending limits for parties and candidates.

This is not good for our democracy. On the first point, I take it as axiomatic that we have a right to know who is trying to buy our politicians. And while parties sneer at such "trivial" sums as $10,000, to anyone outside their tiny elite, that looks like a hell of a lot of money (by way of comparison, its about 40% of the median income). Assurances by parties that donors are not receiving political favours in exchange for their money, or that "$10,000 isn't enough to buy anything" simply don't wash (and the latter shows how out of touch parties are with the general public; to almost all of us, $10,000 buys you a hell of a lot). They need to prove it. And that means a high level of transparency, declaring all but non-trivial donations so we can check to see that everything is above board.

If you want to be polite, you can call this "trust, but verify". Personally, I don't trust our politicians any further than I can throw them, and I trust the sorts of people who give them $10,000 even less. Entrenched suspicion is our best protection, and the law should reflect that.

As for spending limits, there's no suggestion that the existing spending limits for parties or candidates are inadequate; the average winning candidate spent just 60% of the limit, while only the two major parties even begin to approach the party limit, with most spending far less. The purpose of spending limits is to level the playing field and prevent money from being a disproportionate advantage. Raising them undermines that purpose, giving the large parties free reign to try and buy victory, and kicking off an arms race of spending and donations. The result will be to transfer even more power to donors.

This is exactly the sort of "reform" I expected National to make. It serves their interests - and those of their wealthy donors - and no-one else's. And ordinary voters like you or I will be the losers.