Here come the Cossacks....

Pundit member Hayden Wilson discusses why the Electoral Finance Act could make this election campaign the nastiest in New Zealand’s history.

Dancing Cossacks and the Exclusive Brethren notwithstanding, New Zealand’s election campaigns have never been known for particularly negative campaigning. We don’t do negative campaigns in the style of the United States, where attack campaigning, often through political action committees or 527 groups, is ever present.

Commentators have been suggesting for some time that the 2008 election campaign is likely to be one of the nastiest, and possibly most litigious, election campaigns in New Zealand’s history (Although that is a claim that has probably been made every election since 1853).

However, this time electoral law might actually encourage negative campaigning, particularly by third party groups. With all the ink that has been spent over the Electoral Finance Act and the way it was pushed through Parliament, surprisingly little has been said about the way the Act deals with the expenses of candidates and parties. However, one element of those rules actively encourages negative campaigning by third party groups.

Imagine I am a member of a third party that supports a particular policy position that is held by a party contesting the election. If I go out and promote advertisements supporting that policy in a way that ‘encourages or persuades, or appears to encourage or persuade’ you to vote for that party, then a number of things happen:

  • My party needs to register under the Act (if we intend to spend more than $12,000), appoint a financial agent and comply with the reporting requirements under the Act;
  • We need to get the permission of the financial agent of the party that the advertising could arguably support; and
  • The cost of that advertising must be included, not only in my third party’s returns (and therefore counted towards the $120,000 maximum that we can spend) but also in the financial returns of the party concerned.

The same restrictions apply to third party advertising that could arguably support a candidate rather than a party and, even worse, the maximum spending limits are much more restrictive for both - $4,000 for the third party and $20,000 total for each candidate.

But let's approach it from the other direction. Any campaign that can be expressed in a positive way (‘vote for X’) can equally be expressed in the negative (‘don’t vote for Y’). So if, rather than championing party X’s support for the policies I hold so dear, I castigate party Y for their failure to agree with me, what happens then?

Well, assuming that I want to spend over $12,000 (less than a full page ad in the major dailies) I still have to register under the Act. But if I do that and run an entirely negative campaign against Y, my spending doesn’t have to be included in X party’s election return, notwithstanding that it will likely have just as much effect as a positive campaign would have had.

There is some evidence of this already happening – EMA (Northern) launched newspaper advertising that was a (very) thinly disguised attack on Labour’s Kiwisaver changes and the CTU has been distributing dark warnings to its members about the prospect of a National government.

And a sophisticated party political campaign can make huge political mileage out of leveraging off exactly this kind of ‘surrogate negative’ campaigning. Using closely linked messages in their ‘official’ advertising, a party or a candidate can gain exactly the advantage from this sort of campaigning as if they had run the ads themselves, without the high risk of voter backlash for ‘going negative’. As an example, just see what Bush Snr and the National Security Political Action Committee did to Michael Dukakis with the ‘Willie Horton’ ads .

In an election showing every sign of being hotly contested, it is quite likely that the Dancing Cossacks will be holding a reunion gig soon on a television near you.

Hayden Wilson is a senior associate in the Government Relations team at Kensington Swan and joined Pundit this week.