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Retiring commissioner calls for education

Retiring Electoral Commissioner calls for reform and education

The retiring chief executive of the Electoral Commission, Dr Paul Harris, has called for a single and independent electoral agency, a change to election advertising laws and increased resources for electoral education.

He gave his personal views at a retirement function hosted this week by Associate Justice Minister Rick Barker and attended by more than 100 current and former politicians, judges, academics, public officials, and electoral stakeholders.

“The structure of electoral administration is still fragmented,” Dr Harris said, “and I look forward to the day when we have the modern form of a single electoral agency with clear responsibility for the whole parliamentary electoral process and with complete and clear statutory independence from political parties and the Executive.”

(In 2001 an electoral taskforce recommended the formation of a single electoral agency.)

Dr Harris also said he was frustrated at the slow pace of electoral law refinement. “I think it is particularly unfortunate that there has not been a major review of election broadcasting law under MMP since, in my view, aspects of the current regime would be difficult to justify in a free and democratic society.”

(Dr Harris said later he was referring to the law restricting political parties to spend no more on broadcast advertising than any amount of public funding they might receive, and preventing parties not allocated money from doing any broadcast advertising at all. He believed all parties should be free to spend on broadcast advertising within their overall election expense limits.)

Finally, Dr Harris alluded to a lack of funding that prevented the Commission doing more electoral education, especially among young people, women, Mâori and Pacific Island people.

“This educational work will become more important given the demographic changes New Zealand will experience in the next few years. It can also contribute to countering the uninformed cynicism about politics and politicians which can easily undermine the foundations of the democracy we can too readily take for granted.”

Dr Harris said later he hoped that the Commission, Government and Parliament would address these matters over the next few years.

Dr Harris, a political scientist, has been chief executive (and one of four electoral commissioners) since the Commission’s inception in 1994. Previously, he was a senior lecturer in political science at Victoria University during which time he also served as principal research officer to the Royal Commission on the Electoral System 1985-86. He has consulted internationally on electoral matters.

Dr Harris said he was looking forward to a long summer vacation before finding new challenges. His successor is yet to be announced.

The Commission, an independent Crown entity, registers political parties and logos, monitors political parties’ election spending and donations, delivers electoral education, and provides advice to the government and parliament on electoral matters.

Other speakers at the function included Associate Justice Minister Hon Rick Barker, former Justice Minister Hon Tony Ryall, and Electoral Commission president Hon Tony Ellis QC.

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