It's not exactly what I would have done, but National's process for reviewing electoral finance laws is largely to be commended
A quick, upfront disclaimer. In 2008, the Labour government appointed me to chair an "expert panel" on electoral law reform, which in turn would help a 70-person "Citizens' Forum" deliberate on what rules New Zealand should have to govern the use of money at election time. One of National's first acts in government was to disestablish this panel and put an end to the Citizens' Forum process. They had every right to take this step; indeed, pre-election they'd explicitly said it was their intention to do so. But it left me a bit nervous as to how they instead planned to replace the now late, unlamented and much-derided Electoral Finance Act 2007.
So it is with relief (and a degree of pleasure) that I see National appears to be true to its word, and its commitment to "seek as broad a range of parliamentary and public support as possible" for new electoral funding rules has been given flesh. I refer to its announcement of a multi-phase "Review of Electoral Campaigning and Political Party Funding", which currently is seeking public submissions on what sort of regulation is appropriate for New Zealand.
Stage one of this review is an issues paper, "to generate a public discussion on broad issues and gather ideas for ways to address these issues." Following this consultation, and one hopes drawing on the submissions made at stage one, the Government will release a policy proposal document. The public again will be asked for its comments and views on these specific proposals. Finally, a Bill will be introduced into the House, where the public can engage a third time through the select committee process. The timeline for this process is reasonably lengthy; the Government does not anticipate the legislation being enacted until the end of 2010.
Let me start with the good stuff about this process, before adding a couple of caveats. First, it is an out-of-sight better approach than Labour adopted when introducing the EFA. Letting the public see what is being proposed and have its say on those proposals before the matter gets into Parliament is highly commendable. Second, the issues paper that has been released for public comment is impressively wide ranging. It includes issues (such as the public funding of political parties and candidates) that National opposes in principle. Finally, the review is taking the issue "to the people", with public meetings to be held in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. All of this is to the good, and I applaud it wholeheartedly.
However, it might still be a bit early to give this review a full three cheers. For one thing, opening a matter up to public submissions is only of value if those submissions get listened to. We'll have to wait for National's actual policy proposals (and subsequent legislation) to see how effective the public's voice is in shaping the final law Parliament enacts. Good intentions do not always translate into good practices, especially if the public appears to favour measures that National doesn't.
Furthermore, and here I acknowledge an obvious bias, I'm not certain that the process of public submission National is pursuing is better than the Citizens' Forum process they scrapped. Submissions tell government what the individuals making the submission think. But they do not allow for individuals to learn about an issue, discuss it with one-another, and change their views in response to evidence and counter-arguments. So yes, the current review is commendably open to the public voice. But that voice will not be as fully informed, or as deliberative, as the voice of the Citizens' Forum would have been.
For another thing, the process of making submissions on discrete topics does not encourage people to think about the issue of electoral financing as a complete system of regulation. This can lead to confusion (as when a majority of people support abstract limits on third party spending, but not if it is their spending that is affected) or bad policy outcomes (for example, if lots of people support limits on individual donations but also oppose state funding for political parties). Trying to derive a coherent "public view" out of a welter of differing individual submissions is difficult, and risks leaving the final decision as to "what the public wants" to the political parties in Parliament.
I'm not saying that just because I think the Citizens' Forum approach would have been a better one to take, National's current review is worthless. It's a pretty good second-best alternative, and I'll take a good second-best over nothing any day of the week. What now is needed is the public (meaning you, dear reader) to engage with the consultation process. Bottom line – if you ever grumbled about the EFA, or have bemoaned the influence of money in politics, then it is time to put up or shut up.
Just email your submission to: firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here.