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: [email protected], or click here.

Comments (7)

by Peter Salmon on April 06, 2009
Peter Salmon

Interesting and helpful. Find myself in broad agreement

by Nigel on April 06, 2009
Nigel

Part of the problem is that people (with some justification) thought that the panel was made up of people who preferred Labour's approach to National's approach.

National would hardly be happy for the citizens' forum to "learn about an issue" from people who are firmly on the Labour/Green end of the political spectrum.

Would you still support the Citizens' forum if National replaced the panel with members as far to the right of centre as the original ones were left of centre?

by Andrew Geddis on April 06, 2009
Andrew Geddis

Nigel,

As I acknowledged, I have a bias in favour of something I was heavily involved in, so obviously I disagree fundamentally that we were involved in a Labour/Green stitch up. It also means I know a bit more about how we were going to do our jobs than do those looking at us from the outside. In short, I stinted a bit in my description of the relationship of the expert panel to the citizens' forum. We were aware of the risk that we would be seen to dominate it/dictate its outcomes, so we deliberately sought to insulate it from our activities. Thus, all educational material would be peer reviewed to ensure (as best we could) that we weren't favouring one regulatory approach over another, and that material would have been presented to the Forum by a "neutral" person not on the expert panel. Finally, the Forum would have had the final word on what it chose to ask for by way of information ... and frankly I think if we'd tried to trick it into adopting  one viewpoint or another, it would have smelled a rat and asked for different stuff to view. 

I also think cynicism about the role of academics in public policy formation (in the sense of "they're just picked to give the outcome the Minister wants") is overblown. Most academics come from disciplines that soften/blunt personal political viewpoints, because they require the following of professional practices like acknowledging alternative viewpoints and considering the weight of evidence for various claims. We're also well used to having to present material that we may not ourselves agree with in an objective/dispassionate manner. You want evidence of the independence of academics? Look at what the Royal C'ssion on the Electoral System produced in 1986 ... something that Palmer et al had no idea was coming.

Finally, as for your point "Would you still support the Citizens' forum if National replaced the panel with members as far to the right of centre as the original ones were left of centre?", it would depend on who those members were. If they'd appointed academics with strong research records in the field who had genuinely grappled with the intricacies of the topic, then yes I would support the change (while disputing that this change should necessarily alter the outcome of the Citizens' Jury one iota). If they appointed the chairs of the National, Act and United Future Parties, then no I would not.

All that said ... it is fair to express concerns about how the Labour/Green parties went about selecting and appointing the expert panel. By then, I think the EFA had wrought so much damage that no "fix" from those parties would have worked, but still to appoint us with no buy-in from National meant we were suspect from the get-go. Which is why I said in my post that National "had every right to [abolish the expert panel]; indeed, pre-election they'd explicitly said it was their intention to do so."

by Kate Georgina Stone on April 06, 2009
Kate Georgina Stone

There is always room for political bias in the process of an expert panel advising a citizens' forum, however, it is not a necessary condition. If National's objection had been based on a proven bias of the expert panel perhaps they could had sought a multi-party reformulation of the panel.

This would have been preferible, I think, to getting rid of it all together. I think there is more risk of partisan politics influencing the public submission process. Those who make submissions are more likely to be those who have some particular interest ('particular' because obviously we all have an interest in the financing of electoral campaigns) in the issue. I would profer that a greater proportion of these people are likley to be captive to partisan politics and are not representative of New Zealanders in general.

The benefit of the citizens' forum model is that there is much more of opportunity to hear the voices of those who are unlikely to make submissions as they lack the information and education on the issue. But given that knowledge are quite capable of voicing the concerns of seldom heard sectors of the New Zealand public.

by Raymond A Francis on April 07, 2009
Raymond A Francis

A couple of questions David?

Am I right in thinking that the "citizens forum" would have been a completly new way of changing our non written constitution

And what was the thinking on the how the 70 people who formed the forum be chosen?

I have read about who wouldn't be picked but wonder if the scrum might have been screwed in how it was chosen

I have to say I think it could have been very interesting process but with Labours history in these matters may have regarded the results with a jaundiced eye

by Andrew Geddis on April 07, 2009
Andrew Geddis

Raymond,

I assume you want me (Andrew) to answer you? (David is my father, but as I inherited his features, it's an easy mistake to make!)

The Citizens' Forum would not have had any final decision making power - it simply would have fed its preferred recommendations to the Minister (with a strong presumption that the Minister would act on them ... or, if not, have to explain why he was ignoring the best-considered view of ordinary NZers). However, it is a model that has been used in Canada to generate proposals that then go directly to a referendum vote, to see if the voters approve of them. And I think it may have some relevance to us here in NZ as we grapple with issues like "what should be the status of the Treaty" or "should  we have an entrenched Bill of Rights". At the moment, these tend to get debated either by a very small circle of policy makers/academics, or else used as simplified political postures to embarrass opponents.

As for picking the participants in the Forum, it would have been as random as possible. Several thousand letters would be sent out to enrolled voters in each electorate (randomly selected off the electoral rolls) explaining what was being proposed and asking if they were interested in participating. (I forget the exact number we were about to post, but I think it was 5000 per electorate, or 350,000 nationally.) Those who were interested would then have to attend an evening meeting, at which the process for the Forum's deliberations would be explained in detail (plus the level of commitment required set out). At the end of each meeting, all those still interested in participating would register their interest, and a randomised selection from them would take place to provide one Forum member for each electorate. We also planned to provide childcare/a per diem allowance to try and ensure people weren't automatically ruled out for family or financial reasons.

So there would still be an element of "selection bias", in the sense that only those who received the initial letter and who were interested/committed would take part. But that is unavoidable (unless we start holding guns to peoples' heads!). And so we endeavoured to make the selection amongst those interested/committed enough completely random.

by Raymond A Francis on April 07, 2009
Raymond A Francis

Thank you for that Andrew, sorry about the name mixup, some sort of brain fart

Your answer makes me feel it was really an opportunity lost, lets hope not for ever

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