Ain't the new sound just like the old sound?

The Electoral Finance Act is dead. Long live the Electoral Finance Act.

Cast your mind back, if you will, to late 2007/early 2008.

"Democracy Under Attack", declared the front page of the New Zealand Herald. Thousands marched down Queen Street, hundreds gathered in Wellington, and the heart of radical Aotearoa, Tauranga, turned out 600 wild eyed lunatics prepared to lay down their lives for liberty. Billboards arose, pointedly and oh-so-reasonably drawing comparisons between a legislative proposal to regulate electoral spending and the worldview of mass-murdering, sociopathic dictators.

Then a new National Government came in, Parliament (almost unanimously) voted to repeal (most of) the Electoral Finance Act 2007, and once again freedom was restored to a nation that had slid grievously close to tyranny.

Until last night. When Parliament once again passed the Electoral Finance Act - repackaged as the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill - into law against a backdrop of almost complete indifference.

I exaggerate, of course, because that is what blogs are for and without a shock-horror lead no-one will bother reading this post. But there is a small grain of truth to what I've just said. I'll get to that in time, after dealing with what has changed in the intervening couple of years.

Most obviously, Labour isn't in power anymore. So some of the, shall we say, ulterior motivation for vigorously opposing the Electoral Finance Act has drained away. Furthermore, a number of those involved in that campaign have moved on to denouncing the Government's proposals for the foreshore and seabed  - and only a fool tries to fight a war on two fronts at once.

Beyond the background politics of the issue, the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill differs from the old Electoral Finance Act in terms of how it was created, debated and enacted. Not even that latter legislation's architects in Labour are defending the process they used to pass it, and Simon Power is to be congratulated for learning from those mistakes and doing a much better job this time around. Not only has there been quite extensive public input into the new legislation's development, but the National Party has been prepared to compromise (or sell out, depending on your point of view) with other parties to create a broad consensus on what should be done.

Those compromises also have resulted in a set of rules that are less prescriptive than the Electoral Finance Act's were. So, the period of pre-election regulation is much shorter than under the Electoral Finance Act - dialed back from up-to 11 months to about 3 months. "Third parties", now called "promoters", can spend up to $300,000 on election advertisements during this period - up from the $120,000 cap that applied previously. There's been an increase in how much political parties and candidates can spend on their own campaigns, to take account for the fact these limits hadn't changed since 1996. Donors to political parties can give up to $15,000 without having to identify themselves publicly, up from the former threshold of $10,000.

So, all-in-all, the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment  Bill is less restrictive of campaign spending than was the Electoral Finance Act. But, and here's the germ of truth I referred to earlier, it is more restrictive than was the law prior to 2008. And the restrictions it applies differ from the Electoral Finance Act more in degree than substance.

Most importantly, the new legislation accepts the proposition that anyone who wishes to involve themselves in the election campaign with the aim of influencing the outcome of the vote ought to be subject to financial limits. So it doesn't matter if you are a political party, a candidate, an outraged individual, a pressure group or a labour/business organisation - if you want to tell people how they should vote come election day, then you should get a say ... but not too much of a say.

(That said, it does matter who you are in one quite important sense - a political party can spend up to $2.782 million on their election advertising. A "promoter" can spend up to $300,000. But, of course, a political party is seeking to win law making/governing authority over the entire country ... so isn't it more important that we hear more from them than those who don't have that objective?)

As I've said before, I'm comfortable with this approach to regulating electoral campaigning. It's consistent with how we've run elections since the late 19th Century. And I think most New Zealanders are pretty comfortable with it as well - it ties in with our national character. So I'm actually not that surprised that it was brought back into the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill by the Electoral Legislation Committee.

That's not to say that the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill is perfect. Here's one problem I've noticed. If you want to be a "promoter" who spends more than $12,000 on election advertising during the regulated period, you first must register with the Electoral Commission and provide your name and contact details (which then become public). The point of this is so that the public can find out who is behind large-scale advertising and thereby judge the trustworthiness of the claims made.

However, if you want to give $15,000 to a political party, you can do so without anyone outside of the party knowing who you are. This is despite the obvious concerns about quid-pro-quo influence that such donations may engender.

So, spend $12,000 of your own money telling the world who you think ought to be elected and you must make your identity known to all, so as to avoid the specter of covert influence over the election process. Give $15,000 to a political party to let it tell the world why it should be elected and no-one need ever know about your relationship.

Does that make sense?