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Labour plans to railroad law allowing card rort

Gerry Brownlee MP
National Party Shadow Leader of the House
5 November 2007

Labour plans to railroad law allowing card rort

National Party Shadow Leader of the House Gerry Brownlee says Labour is planning to railroad a law that legitimises the 2005 pledge card rort through Parliament under urgency.

“The retrospective law that Labour wrote to absolve itself of illegal activity around the pledge card is set to be rolled over under urgency, without any public consultation.

“It provides absolutely no certainty about what is ‘electioneering’ – even though Labour blamed the lack of certainty as the reason it fell foul of the Auditor-General over the pledge card in 2005.”

Michael Cullen has confirmed the Appropriation (Continuation of Interim Meaning of Funding for Parliamentary Purposes) Bill will define electioneering in a way that is ‘substantively the same’ as is currently in place.

Dr Cullen’s spokesman is reported as saying ‘that we're going to get a bill passed before the end of the year that will give the certainty that everyone needs’.

“This self-serving piece of legislation will do no such thing. It will leave the definition of ‘electioneering’ so wide that Labour will be able to spend public money on things like the pledge card, while parties not represented in Parliament will be unable to draw from the same pool of money.
“This is the ‘yin’ to the Electoral Finance Bill’s ‘yang’.

“It loads the dice in favour of incumbent MPs. They will be able to spend taxpayer money on electioneering, while candidates not in Parliament will be heavily restricted from spending their own money to get their voices heard.

“Coupled with the Electoral Finance Bill, it is an anti-democratic double whammy.”

Mr Brownlee is calling on Michael Cullen to come clean on the bill and release the details now so the public can see what Labour is planning.

“Come on Labour – show us the bill!”

Ends

Attached: Parliamentary advertising and the Electoral Finance Bill backgrounder – 2 pages.

Parliamentary advertising and the Electoral Finance Bill

MPs are not allowed to spend public money on electioneering, but that all depends on how electioneering is defined.

The combination of provisions in the proposed Appropriation (Continuation of Interim Meaning of Funding for Parliamentary Purposes) Bill and in the Electoral Finance Bill means that:
• parties in Parliament, and individual MPs, can use their taxpayer funding to pay for what, if it came from anyone else, would be considered election advertising
• those taxpayer-funded election ads can be run during an election campaign, and
• the costs of those ads won’t count towards the party’s, or the candidate’s, election spending cap.

Labour is expected to push the Appropriation Bill through under urgency, not subjecting the Bill to select committee scrutiny and not allowing public submissions.

Could election advertisements really be paid for out of parliamentary funds?

Yes, as long as they are not extremely blatant.

The Appropriation Bill is set to continue the interim definition of electioneering as it applies to MPs (it would otherwise lapse on 31 December). This definition was introduced by Labour after the Auditor-General’s report on spending at the last election.

The definition of electioneering is “ any communication that explicitly—
(a) seeks support for the election of a particular person or persons:
(b) seeks support for the casting of a party vote for a particular political party or political parties:
(c) encourages any person to become a member of a particular political party or political parties:
(d) solicits subscriptions or other financial support
[Appropriation (Parliamentary Expenditure Validation) Act 2006 s.7.]

Effectively, parliamentary advertising would need to say “vote for Party X”, “join Party X”, or “give money to Party X” before it would be considered electioneering.

So the following could legitimately be paid for out of parliamentary funding, even if they appeared the week before a general election:
• a pledge card, distributed to all households in the country, with Party X’s policy commitments on it
• a billboard saying “Party Y will lower taxes”
• a full-page newspaper advertisement saying “only Party Z cares for the environment”.


But surely these are considered election expenses if they happened in an election campaign and would count towards the spending cap?

Yes, under the existing law, the Electoral Act 1993.

They would also be considered election expenses under the Electoral Finance Bill, if it weren’t for the fact that the EFB has introduced a blanket exemption for parliamentary spending. An election expense does not include the cost of “any publications that relate to a member of Parliament in his or her capacity as a member of Parliament” [cl.82(1)(g)].

So the examples above would not be considered election advertising under the EFB (because MPs are exempted) and would not be considered election advertising under the Parliamentary rules (because these only prohibit extremely blatant advertisements).

What are the consequences?

There is no justification for having one definition for MPs when they are using public money, and another definition for everyone else in the country.

Spending parliamentary funds on election advertising:
• is de facto state funding for political parties
• gives a huge advantage to parties, and candidates, already in parliament, and
• makes a mockery of the election spending cap.

Under election rules, a political party cannot spend more than $2.4 million on election advertising. However, under the Electoral Finance Bill, parties in parliament can use their leader’s office funding as an additional source of money for election advertising.

In addition, MPs can use their individual support funding for election advertising, which gives them a huge advantage over rival candidates who are not sitting MPs and who are therefore limited to spending $20,000 in the whole of election year.

Would this allow Labour to put out a pledge card in 2008?

Yes, and Labour could not be criticised by the Auditor-General, the Solicitor-General or the Chief Electoral Officer, because the rules will have been changed.

ENDS

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