Electoral finance reform: back to the future?

Stage two of National's electoral finance reform proposals is out—and it looks oddly familiar

The release of National's latest step in its multi-stage public consultation on electoral finance reform takes me back to the topic of my very first Pundit post. You can bet there'll be more to say on this in the future, too. Because once this stage is done with, there's still legislation to be drafted, select committee hearings to be had, and parliamentary votes to be taken. Really, electoral finance is the gift that keeps on giving.

Or, alternatively, its a beast that just will not die, no matter the number of blows rained down upon it. Even the New Zealand Herald, that implacable (albeit factually wrong) front-page crusader against limits on our liberty, seems to have grown somewhat fatigued with the whole issue. The revelation that National is still considering limits on third party (sorry, "parallel campaigner") expenditure attracted no more than a pro-forma "tsk tsk" from the Herald's (regular) editorial slot. Could it be that the old warrior's shoulders have grown too stiff to raise the sword in one more campaign? Or is it just that a new, still sexy government looms as a tougher opponent than an old, rather wrinkled one?

For there are a number of points in the Government's proposals with which issue may be taken. The Herald's editorial focused in on one of the more inconsequential ones—the suggestion that political parties might (and only might) be allowed to use the state funding currently provided to them for buying election ads on TV and radio for any purpose they choose. It overlooked entirely what the Government doesn't seem interested in changing; the way that money is doled out in the first place. At the last election, this resulted in Labour and National getting a million dollars each, with smaller parties getting much less. Perhaps not surprisingly, amending this allocation process isn't on National's "to do" list, despite some pretty significant criticism of it in the past.

Or take the issue of publicly disclosing where political parties' funding comes from. A majority of the responses to the previous stage of the Government's consultation process favoured lowering the level of donations that triggers a legal requirement to disclose a donor's identity. Indeed, a grand total of two submitters favoured the status quo. Yet the Government's insouciant response is "that the existing rules strike a fair balance between transparency and the freedom to accept donations." Have a read of this, and you may see just why it thinks that.

(Lest I be accused of an irredeemable anti-National bias, I'm with Idiot Savant on calling hypocrites those parties that have attacked this aspect of National's proposals without voluntarily making the disclosures they claim to think so necessary.)

None of this is to say that the present consultation process is intended to be a sham, or that there isn't good reason to take part in it. But doing so is a bit difficult because of the interrelated nature of the topic at hand: for example, deciding what is an appropriate level of campaign spending (proposal 5) depends upon your decision on what should be considered election advertising (proposal 7), how long the regulated period should run for (proposal 6), and whether it will include spending on broadcasting (proposal 2). Change any one of these variables and you change what is an "appropriate" amount to spend, while the decision on any of these variables may itself depend on how much parties are allowed to spend.

Out of the melange of opinion the Government will receive, I suspect any conclusion can be drawn. And I further suspect that given National's traditional conservative bent, along with the fact that politicians generally prefer electoral rules that they know to those that they don't, we're headed towards getting a "new" set of rules that will look an awful lot like the "old" ones.

We may even end up with an "EFA-lite", which would be a supreme irony given the wailing and gnashing of teeth that took place from late 2007 through 2008.