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Electoral Commission Lapses into Catatonic State

Media Release
3 October 2008

Electoral Commission Lapses into Catatonic State

The disarmingly honest admission of the Electoral Commission in its Annual Report that it cannot manage the Electoral Finance Act is of no help to those of us seeking to participate in honest public debate in this General Election, says Martin Taylor, chief executive of the Healthcare Providers of New Zealand.

“We do not have any guidelines on what we can and cannot say. What we do know is if we contravene the law we are individually and not collectively liable and there is a maximum sentence of imprisonment,” says Taylor.

Healthcare Providers of New Zealand (HCPNZ) has mounted a small campaign on behalf of the aged care sector to encourage debate around the funding of aged care now and into the future. Healthcare Providers is advocating that funding to the sector at least keeps pace with inflation, and that the government plans for the future.

“An example of the inadequacy of the Commission’s performance is that it refuses to tell us whether our billboards and newspaper advertisements constitute an “election advertisement” under the Act.

The Electoral Commission’s response to our request for guidance was, “It is our stated position that we do not give sign off on material because we do not have powers to do so definitely. Promoters and potential promoters are advised to take their own legal advice, to assess their own risks, and make their own decision…”

“This response is incredible, it is saying we retain the right to refer you to the police for a criminal act, but will not give you any guidance so that you can avoid breaking the law. It’s like taking down all the speed limit signs and then expecting people to guess what speed they need to go to avoid a fine”

“It seems the Electoral Commission has lapsed into a catatonic state of inaction. It is simply in dereliction of its responsibilities – no more and no less.”

“They are protecting their own reputation ahead of the protection of fundamentals of democracy.”

“It could legitimately interpret the Act narrowly, thereby, promoting freedom of expression, but it is not. Instead it is giving no guidance to some like HCPNZ, or interpreting the Act widely for others such as MPs”.

The impact of the inaction of the Commission on organisations such as ours, says Health Providers of New Zealand, is apprehension. Organisations looking to engage in legitimate debate are being deterred from participation for fear of prosecution, particularly as the penalties apply to individuals and not collectives.

The Commission has to take some leadership, undertake some sensible interpretation of the Act and give reasonable guidelines to legitimate organisations legitimately participating in public debate. If it won’t do that then why have a Commission?


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