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March 17, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Hugh McCaffrey Against the EFA

No matter what side of the political spectrum you are from, in principle you must oppose this Act. Electoral law is at the heart of a democracy, it sets the rules for which parties can get into parliament. Within New Zealand, convention has always dictated that electoral laws develop in a bipartisan way; for this very reason we do not allow the Government bench to change electoral boundaries. This is done because electoral laws (should) transcend the politics of the day. Bipartisanship is clearly important to stop politicians who have a vested interest from screwing over the voting process.

Therefore, Labour doing a back room deal with the Greens to make the EFA is offensive. Labour has managed to set a dangerous precedent. Helen has given future parties the right to change electoral laws whichever way they choose.

Below is an examination of the questions that don’t seem to be answered by proponents of the EFA:

Does “big business” actually feature largely in NZ political funding?

Many of those in support of the EFA have lamented that private money is funding elections. This is just fear-mongering. At the last election one eighth of the money spent was private money. The majority of the other seven eighths was the good old taxpayer. It seems absurd for the Government to step in and get the taxpayers to pay more. Why should I fund a party which I absolutely disagree with? I am not sure the Government has a legitimate right to steal my money and give it to some tin-pot party.

Even if “big business” or “private money” does feature largely, can money actually buy elections?

Many people that I have talked to have just assumed that money can buy an election. I am not sure that this is correct. It is true that if the difference in election spending was zero dollars and a million dollars, that the candidate with the million could “buy” the election, but if it is the difference between seven million dollars and eleven million dollars, that price difference is negligible. A wealth of data has been collected since 1972 from the thousands of congressional races in the United States. All the time the same two candidates have run consecutively against each other. The result shows that the effect of money was negligible. A candidate could cut his spending by half and only lose one percent of the vote. The opposite is also true – a candidate who increased spending by a half only gained one percent of the vote. We see this all the time: Thomas Golisano spent ninety-three million dollars of his own money over three New York elections and only gained an average vote of eight percent. This result rings true in New Zealand; if it was really true that big business could buy an election I wonder why ACT, who at the last election received the third highest amount of donations, only has two MPs.

The question now is, does the bill actually do harm? Simply, yes. First, in terms of free speech, for the first time restrictions are now being placed on the amount of money that may be spent by “third parties” in an election year. Third parties wanting to spend between $12,000 and $120,000 opposing or supporting any political party will now be required to register and be subject to regulations.

Further, spending in excess of $120,000 will be illegal. The total cost of an opposition party campaign is typically between five to ten million; in terms of the governing party the cost well exceeds $10 million. The effect of this is that the two major political parties will be able to smother third party private opposition.

Secondly it hugely favours incumbent MPs. A non-MP candidate only has twenty thousand dollars to spend throughout the whole election year. A sitting MP, in addition to the twenty thousand, has access to taxpayers’ money. This hugely sets the board in favour of incumbent MPs. The reason money is a big feature in local constituencies is because the amount of money allowed to be spent is small, therefore a small difference in funding has a huge impact.

Conrad’s Right of Reply

Several things my dearest Hugh McMuffin:

1. You misrepresent the purpose of the Act. Sure, it fails to adequately address some of its purported objectives, but most laws do anyway. Its not enough to sweep it entirely from the public conscience.

2. You mention how ACT spent a vast amount of money, and yet only managed to get two candidates. Well, considering that ACT focused almost entirely on ensuring that Rodney Hide was elected in Epsom, it is perhaps reasonable to infer that money DID have an important impact in that particular electoral contest.

3. You’re principled objections appear hollow. There was no real analysis of why the law is inherently flawed, apart from some bold assertions regarding the negligible aspect of spending money on elections. Firstly, my point above could refute that, and secondly – it does not adequately deal with the point of rational voter ignorance, which relies on attitudinal emotive reactions – usually ones garnered by money.

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