Monday, November 22, 2010

A declaration of intent

The Electoral Legislation Committee has reported back [PDF] on the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill. The bill is National's "permanent solution" to the Electoral Finance Act, the result of a long process of public consultation. Unfortunately, while that consultation has been obeyed in one significant fashion, it has been ignored in another, to ram through changes to benefit political parties (and National in particular) with no public mandate.

First, the good: the original bill proposed to remove any real limits or transparency requirements on third-party spending, allowing wealthy special interest groups to spend unlimited amounts in secret to buy our elections. This resulted in a public outcry, and so third parties are now subjected to a $300,000 spending cap. In addition, if they spend more than $100,000, they will have to file an expense return with the Electoral Commission. While both the cap and disclosure threshold are too high, and there is no requirement to disclose who is funding such campaigns, we have won on the principle: private money must be regulated to protect democracy. The challenge now is to make that regime more robust.

(The same change has been made for the MMP referendum, BTW, so its a double victory. Take that, Peter Shirtcliffe!)

And now the bad: firstly, National is boosting candidate spending caps and the electorate component of the party spending cap by 20%, to $25,000 per electorate. So, we'll have more money in our politics. Secondly, they're raising the disclosure threshold for donations by 50%, from $10,000 to $15,000, so more of that money will be secret.

Transparency around political donations is vital to protect our democracy. It allows us to have confidence in our political system by ensuring that people can't buy influence. Its something we need more of, not less. Instead, National has slammed the doors. They can no longer funnel secret money through trusts, so they've simply decided to raise the threshold, allowing them to keep their backers secret again. This can only be taken as a declaration of intent on their part to behave corruptly, and it is not something we should accept.

As for how to fight it, I suggest using the same tactics which have forced open Parliamentary expenses. While the law may not require donations under the threshold to be declared, nothing prevents a party from voluntarily disclosing such information, and a party which publicly practiced such transparency would immediately force the other parties to do the same or suffer politically. So, Greens, how about it? You actively promote yourself as the clean party. Time to earn that reputation for real, and change the world for the better at the same time.