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Gerry: In the House, 20 February 2006

Gerry: In the House

20 February 2006

The matter of Labour's pledge cards first came into the public arena when the Chief Electoral Officer referred Labour's election-year overspending to the Police. The interest for Parliament was that this was taxpayer funding and Labour had no right to use it in this way. Parliamentary Service, which oversees the use of funds in the Leader's Office of political parties, re-wrote the rules in 2003 on how the fund can be used to disseminate public information. Those rules are very clear. Helen Clark needs to instruct the Labour Party to pay the money back. The additional spending on Labour's campaign by trade unions, the Public Service Association and the Post Primary Teachers Association do not contravene the Electoral Act. For Electoral Act purposes, nor would the pledge card had Labour not breached the spending limit set by the commission.

Many questions to answer

Why didn't Trevor Mallard and Heather Simpson alert the Prime Minister to the danger of the pledge card spending after meeting 'extensively' with the Auditor-General? Did they fail to pass on the message? Did she know the pledge card funding was dubious? Who was involved in making the decisions about pledge card spending? And why will Helen Clark not do the right thing and repay the money, given that the Auditor-General and the Electoral Commission have now categorised the pledge cards as electioneering?
This is another classic case of taxpayer money that was set aside for one purpose being used by Labour for another. The pledge card and all its associated advertising were a major plank in Labour's re-election campaign. If Labour did not think the pledge card influenced voters it wouldn't have used them for the past three elections. Helen Clark is in denial. Of course the pledge card is about securing votes.

Chance to fix the rules

Labour knew the Auditor-General was preparing to knuckle down on taxpayer-funded advertising, yet Helen Clark refused to address the issue before the election. In the middle of last year, the Auditor-General tried to meet Helen Clark for a discussion on how to fix the formula for Labour's taxpayer-funded advertising. But she declined. She knew her taxpayer-funded pledge cards would get the chop. Helen Clark must explain why she rejected that opportunity. It's hard not to escape the conclusion that it was in Labour's interest to wait until after the election then claim confusion. Overspending by accident is one thing. Overspending and knowing that you're pushing the boundaries is quite another. Labour must've known they were skating on dangerously thin ice.

Helen Clark should be held accountable

The Prime Minister's refusal to accept responsibility for her abuse of the Leader's fund is nothing short of a disgrace. On the face of it, she has been caught red-handed. Her protests now are merely a smokescreen to hide her own lack of judgment. It is her signature on it. She should be accountable for it. Using money from the Leader's tax-funded Budget for election campaign material is a serious matter and she should promise immediately to repay it.

The National Party called for a crackdown on political party advertising in June and then again in July last year. Clearly there was goodwill on National's behalf to make sure everyone understood the rules, so why didn't Helen Clark accept the offer then and avoid the so-called confusion now? This wasn't about considering other parties, as she made out in the House; this was about dodging the bullet. The 2003 Parliamentary Service rules make it clear the pledge card doesn't comply. Regardless of any other agencies' interest in this matter, Helen Clark should pay the money back.

Gerry Brownlee


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