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Electoral donations, transparency and $50k to buy policy

  • May 5th, 2009

John Boscawen is dead right on Morning Report this morning. The apparent substantial reduction in large political donations as reported under the Electoral Finance Act shows what cynical hypocrisy it was. It was never designed by Labour to increase transparency. They deliberately left loopholes in it.

The loopholes worked. They do in every country that tries to bottle political energy. It is like bottling steam. If you succeed it turns to water. Electoral finance laws all over the world increase both the perception and the reality of political corruption.

In our case as John says the real objective was to gag third parties with passionate convictions, to ensure that effective electoral participation was permitted only to the insiders – the professional operators from the registered parties. It was also designed to increase pressure for taxpayer funding of election campaigns

I know from my legal work on that Act that it reduced transparency during the last election. It did what the creation of most victimless crimes does – generated smart and successful effort to avoid it. 

If instead it had been intended to strengthen democracy, it would have freed up and encouraged third party involvement, it would have set parties free to decide how they allocated their spending, and it would have focussed on requiring disclosure only of donations at a level where there is a serious likelihood that they might influence a party’s policies, in effect at the level where they could be the price of a vote in Parliament,

When I sat on the Justice and Electoral Select Committee reviewing the 2002 election, the Chairman, Tim Barnett, worked hard to get the committee to suggest taxpayer funding of political campaigns. During that debate (behind closed doors) the United Future MP Murray Smith, persuaded us to have a frank discussion about what amount of money we thought would actually be likely to influence a party’s manifesto. We eventually reached a consensus that it was around $50k.

Murray then proposed that we suggest $50k as the disclosure threshold, with substantial upgrading of the provisions to catch avoidance mechanisms (by splitting donations to avoid the threshold) and dedicated enforcement to detect and prosecute breaches.

Perhaps even then most of us had lost confidence in Police impartiality for electoral law enforcement purposes.

The benefit of raising the threshold would be the same benefit as is provided by the secret ballot. It allows people to express their political beliefs without fear of governing party vindictiveness. Murray and I  believed that fear of Labour was increasing, and with it  increasing reluctance by people with something to lose to be publicly involved in politics.

Campaign funding laws play into the hands of ruthless governments prepared to instil that fear.

Murray’s practical suggestion was favoured by  National and ACT  and Nandor Tanczos for the Greens was prepared to discuss it. Labour was horrified, but from recollection it was the NZ First hostility that most surprised me.

The excellent work by Kitchin and the DomPost on the Glenn saga last year made it all more understandable.

H Clarks’ connivance in Peters’ plundering of tax money to benefit his racing industry sponsors was among the low points of her reign. I very much doubt that she will be remembed at the UN in years to come as the corruption reformer they desperately need.

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