Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Bill – Second Reading

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The ACT Party will be opposing and voting against this legislation. I will focus most of my speech on the issue of third-party expenditure limits and the restrictions that are being placed on the rights of ordinary New Zealanders to speak out and be involved in the election campaign.

Before I do that, I reiterate some of the comments that have been made in this House this afternoon. I congratulate Amy Adams, the chair of the Justice and Electoral Committee, on doing a very good job. I say that very genuinely to Amy. I also acknowledge the contribution of Pete Hodgson. He said things in this House this afternoon that I totally disagree with. However, I have to say that having been involved in that committee over 2 or 3 months, I got to know Mr Hodgson better and I thought that the comments and contributions from the other side of the room, so to speak, were very positive in a general sense. I also acknowledge the officials.

One person spoke this afternoon who was not involved in the sittings of the committee, and that person was Mr Hipkins. I found his contribution this afternoon disappointing, because he ridiculed National for its efforts initially to reach a multipartisan approach, and then to reach a bipartisan approach. There are huge advantages if we can get a bipartisan or multipartisan approach. Amy Adams this afternoon talked about the overarching desire to reach consensus. Yes, a consensus was reached, but I ask at what cost.

Mr Hipkins drew the comparison between this legislation and the previous Labour Government’s Electoral Finance Bill. I remind Mr Hipkins of some of the provisions of that bill when it was first introduced. It put a requirement on any New Zealander who wanted to speak out and criticise any party or any person seeking election to first of all go to a justice of the peace and sign a certificate if they wanted to spend so much as a single dollar. Labour’s contribution to this debate was to put a proposal out to the people of New Zealand that required every single person or third party who wanted to participate to go along first of all to a justice of the peace to seek approval to spend so much as a single dollar. Treating the people of New Zealand with such utter contempt drew widespread protest throughout the country.

I go back to the submission from the Human Rights Commission on that bill. It said: “A human rights approach to democratic government requires genuine participation. Genuine participation, in turn, requires an informed electorate. By limiting freedom of expression and creating a complex regulatory framework in the way it does, the Electoral Finance Bill”—that is, Labour’s Electoral Finance Bill—“unduly limits the rights of all New Zealanders to participate in the electoral process”. The commission concluded by saying: “The bill in its current form represents a dramatic assault on two fundamental human rights that New Zealanders cherish, freedom of expression and the right of informed citizens to participate in the election process.”

The legislation before the House this afternoon is a lot better than Labour’s bill. I acknowledge that it is significantly better. Labour sought to eventually put restrictions on third parties and individuals to limit them to spending no more than $120,000 in the year of the election. It is New Zealand’s electoral history that elections generally fall towards the end of the year, in September, October, or November. Labour sought to put restrictions on third parties by allowing them to spend no more than $120,000 for, essentially, the full year.

One may think that $120,000 is a lot of money. One may even think that the National Party’s so-called bipartisan proposal to allow third parties to spend $300,000 is generous, particularly when that $300,000 is limited to only the last 3 months before the election, but let me put that $300,000 in context. What do we as politicians get to spend? To use Lianne Dalziel’s terms, what do we get to spend on paid speech? Lianne Dalziel would criticise people’s going out and spending their own money, as if it were dirty money—as if it were dirty for people to fund-raise and be involved in the political process in the way that the Human Rights Commission says they should be encouraged to do.

What do we get to spend? The rules for what a party and its candidates can spend are laid out in this legislation. Essentially they prescribe a formula that will enable the two major parties in this Parliament, National and Labour, and their candidates to spend more than $5 million. That is right: under this legislation they will be entitled to spend more than $5 million each. What do these two parties say to people in New Zealand? They say that they are allowed to spend $300,000, which is one-sixteenth of what they can spend. They do not want their fellow New Zealanders to criticise them on the election trail or to put up arguments against their policies; they want to limit their rights. Lianne Dalziel had the audacity to stand up in Parliament today and say that she does not want to restrict people’s right to speak out—they are entitled to speak out—but they cannot spend their own money, or, if they do spend their own money, they need to be restricted to spending less than one-sixteenth of what the major parties spend.

Lianne Dalziel, I, and the other politicians in this Parliament this afternoon have a very special privilege. We can speak to the people in the gallery and to the people at home watching television. Who knows how many people are involved in listening to this debate right now? There could be a few hundred or there could be a few thousand. What about the rights of ordinary New Zealanders? We have rights and privileges that no other New Zealanders have. We have the right to be in this debating chamber and to go around the press gallery.

I look at a press release put out this afternoon by Family First, which is a so-called third-party organisation, criticising this bill. Does Family First have the right to come into this House? Does Family First have the right to speak to the people watching television right now? No, it does not. It relies on the media to pick up press releases such as this one, or it relies on the financial contributions of its members to fund the advertisements to go in the newspapers, which it seems the Labour Party and also, sadly, the National Party would choose to deny them.

I pay tribute to Mr Bob McCroskie of Family First, who joined me on the campaign trail against Labour’s Electoral Finance Bill. I will do something in this Chamber right now that he cannot do. I will read part of his press release. I will read the story that the politicians in this Parliament would seek to suppress. What does he say? He says: “The politicians are effectively restricting non-political groups to $300,000 while they can spend millions of dollars and get free television advertising as well … This is not a triumph for democracy. It is an act of arrogance and paranoia on behalf of the politicians and shows utter contempt for voters who may be members or supporters of non-political groups who wish to highlight certain issues during an … election year.”

What does a political party get to spend? The formula prescribes that we can each spend $1 million—in fact, $1,030,000 under this legislation. For every candidate we put up, we can spend a further $25,000. For a party like the Labour Party or the National Party, which would stand a full slate of 70 candidates, that is a further $1.75 million. If we add that together, it comes to $2.75 million. On top of that, each of those two major political parties will get $1 million each in broadcasting—that comes to $3.75 million—and on top of that, the individual candidates who stand for each of those parties can spend a further $1.75 million in total. All up, that comes to $5.5 million. What are the politicians in this House prepared to allow ordinary New Zealanders to spend? They will allow them $300,000. As Mr McCroskie says, Family First will not spend anything like that, but this Parliament is restricting the rights of New Zealanders to participate.

Mr Hodgson cannot understand why the New Zealand Herald  would stand up for the rights of ordinary New Zealanders to speak out in an election year. I pay tribute to the New Zealand Herald . I have here a scrapbook of clippings, under the heading “Democracy under attack”, from the months when the Labour Party tried to impose its will on New Zealand. It is a tribute to the New Zealand Herald and the other members of the media who stood up for the right of free speech. It is a pity that the politicians in this Parliament are not prepared to do the same. The ACT Party will oppose this bill. Thank you