Herald Editorial slams self interest

Editorial: Self-interest offends democracy – 19 Dec 2007 – Opinion, Editorial and reader comments from New Zealand and around the World – nzherald
[quote]The Electoral Finance Bill’s passage through Parliament late yesterday corrodes democracy and shames those whose names stand beside it as it enters the statutes. From January 1, political discourse will be less free, except for political parties – those private organisations that happen to provide the incumbent members of Parliament.

Apologists argue it is a necessary antidote to big money and churches with covert agendas. They should have listened to themselves during the controversy over this bill. Illiberalism reigned. “People shouldn’t be able to say that,” was a common refrain. There was the old line that few citizens spend much on electioneering, so most people will not be affected. That logic would eliminate room for concern over, say, human rights in anti-terror legislation because few people indulge in terrorism.

There was often an implied trade-off: that shutting down those with money was a necessary restriction on freedom of expression. It reeked of political commentator Chris Trotter’s disgraceful conclusion a year ago that the unlawful spending on Labour’s pledge card had been acceptable corruption.

The bill’s advocates also made much of the need to rid our politics of secrecy, yet this measure is feeble in dealing with the anonymous trusts that gave, for example, $900,000 to Labour in 1999 and more than $2 million to National in 2005. However, it provides for anonymity or managed anonymity through the Electoral Commission for other forms of donation.

Rebels with a cause, however implausible, will now need to register with the state if they spend more than $12,000 any time between next month and when the general election is held. The rebel will have to keep count and keep the receipts to justify his or her voice even below that amount. The maximum each individual or lobby group can spend in that period will be $120,000, far lower than a limit sought by the Human Rights Commission and the Electoral Commission. Meanwhile, the private political parties will be free to spend 20 times that amount, and call on parliamentary budgets and taxpayer funded broadcasting worth millions as well. The inequities are legion.

The process followed in imposing this new law was fundamentally flawed, a fact acknowledged by all but the most ardent of the “Exclusive-Brethren-and-fat-cats-must-be-stopped” club. By convention, electoral legislation starts with an attempt at consensus in the House. This bill, borne from the anger of Labour and the Greens at the Brethren’s over-egged pamphlets and National’s connivance in their production, never had a chance to win the hearts and minds of the electorate.

Public submissions were overwhelmingly negative. The Human Rights Commission recommended that the bill be given a second round of public consultation after it was revamped by the select committee, but that was ignored. Its passing by barely 52 per cent of the House speaks volumes.

Soon we will all be covered by its restrictions. Already, those who want to preserve their right to speak out on public issues are having to plan test cases or consider show trials or contrive loopholes such as transforming lobby groups into political parties to aspire to the rarefied freedoms our MPs will continue to enjoy.

It will be vital that all spending by MPs, their parliamentary offices and their parties is examined with scrupulous care by the media and watchdogs worth the name. The Electoral Finance Bill and the Appropriations Bill passed in November, which continued to make some spending found unlawful by the Auditor-General lawful, create a two-tier political market. The very term “third parties” that is now applied to lobby groups implies lesser rights. Those rights to raise and spend money on issues of concern will be at the heart of what could be an election campaign lasting up to 11 months.

Put aside all the claims that opponents of this bill are actually proponents of corporate-foreign-extreme interests. There are fevered imaginations at work there, invoking conspiracies as their sole defence for illiberalism. Former Labour Prime Minister Mike Moore summed up this bogeyman this week by comparing Labour’s fears over the Brethren to National’s anti-communist paranoia – and legal restrictions – of half a century ago.

Those who pushed the law through late yesterday recognised the public opposition, but must have decided it would be easier to ask forgiveness than seek public support. They were wrong, putting political survival and party self-interest ahead of the public interest. And that may prove unforgivable.

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