The Electoral Finance Act: a draconian and over-the-top law that will be used against unionists and radical leftists

The Electoral Finance Act sounds like a pretty boring piece of legislation, yet it sparked one of the biggest disagreements in New Zealand politics last year. Does it really have much to do with workers’ concerns? And will it advance the interests of workers? The Spark talked to Bryce Edwards, a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

The Spark: There’s been a huge amount of talk expended about Labour’s Electoral Finance Bill. Now that its been passed, what actual changes does it make to politics?

BE: The Electoral Finance Act is about increasing state restrictions on political activity. So now that it’s in place we have a lot more regulations concerning how political debate occurs in New Zealand. More than ever before, the state now tells us what we can say and how we can say it.

There’s two main ways that it does that. First, it extends the period during which the state regulates election debate from about six weeks to nearly a year. Second, the new regulations take a much wider view about what debate needs to be regulated. Previously the rules really only dealt with election advertisements. Now they include virtually anything that might publicly express support for or opposition to a party. So a chant on a protest march, a placard, a speech, a chalk slogan on a pavement, a website or emails are all classed as election advertisements, and it’s a crime if you don’t include your name and home address with them.

But significantly, these rules will hardly affect the politicians. The government decided to make those in Parliament exempt from the rules when they’re using their millions of dollars of taxpayer funding to electioneer.

The Spark: Council of Trade Unions (CTU) President Helen Kelly called the new law “an important step in the direction of open, transparent elections and a limit on the undue influence of wealthy interests.” Doesn’t this suggest the law might be beneficial to workers?

BE: I think Helen Kelly is just playing her usual Labour Party cheerleading role when she says that. First, the legislation will not really make elections more transparent. The law has been written so poorly that there are so many loopholes and exemptions, things could actually be a lot murkier than in the past.

Second, the elections certainly won’t be more open because it’s going to be harder for groups from outside of Parliament to participate in political debate, and it’s going to be harder for parties outside Parliament to be elected because the new rules heavily favour the incumbents.

Furthermore, the legislation won’t actually limit “the undue influence of wealthy interests” as Helen Kelly suggests. Her statement is just a typical false-radical attempt to obscure the relationship between power and politics. It suggests that if you simply get big money out of elections then “real” left-wing governments can be elected to bring in some kind of more just society. I’d remind her that there wasn’t much big money involved in the 1984 general election, but look what the Fourth Labour Government and Rogernomics then did!

So, no – workers have nothing to gain from the EFA. If anything it will disadvantage them, especially if they want to be involved in political activity that’s separate from the Labour Party.

The Spark: The CTU says it “proposed changes to the third-party definitions so that they more carefully targeted electoral speech, rather than wider political activity, and the revised Bill appears to have fixed these problems.” What’s your reaction to that?

BE: The CTU are either dreaming or being disingenuous. The EFA is one of the most extreme regulations of politics in the western world. The CTU should have been totally opposing this legislation, because in fact the revised legislation was in many ways even more restrictive than what was initially proposed.

For example, the final law that was passed actually extends the definition of an election advertisement to include “verbal political advocacy.” The law now specifically states that “the use of loudspeakers and megaphones” will need to be accompanied by a declaration. That’s the sort of draconian and over-the-top law that will be used against unionists and radical leftists.

The Spark: The loudest opposition to the bill came from right-wingers and groups like Family First and the Sensible Sentencing Trust. Have these groups suddenly become champions of democracy? Why should we line up with them?

BE: The problem is that the left in NZ has given up its historical values of democracy, opposition to state censorship and its general libertarian orientation. This has allowed the right wing to capitalise on these ideas.

In forsaking its belief in liberty and popular participation, the left has passed this role on to the right. But many of these right-wing groups are opportunistically putting themselves on the side of democracy and, unfortunately for us, this is the correct side of the debate. If a National government had implemented such a draconian act, I doubt these reactionary forces would be protesting. I imagine that the left would be protesting against it, but possibly just out of opposition to National rather than any principles.

Obviously it’s not easy to line up on the same side as some right-wing groups, but we can’t just abstain from the issue because we might be uncomfortable to be seen with right-wingers – that would be politically vain. And after all, the situation is only such due to the terrible position of most of the left. But this doesn’t mean we should stop criticising those right-wingers who are on the same side as us – many of them are just being opportunistic or inconsistent in their opposition to the EFA.

And of course we shouldn’t forget that it hasn’t just been the right wing opposing the EFA. Other prominent opponents included Matt McCarten of Unite union, a number of other unions, the Human Rights Commission, the Listener, and so on.

The Spark: Although you’ve said that political finance reform is futile because political money is just like water in always finding find the weakest links through which to flow, electoral law expert Andrew Geddis has replied by saying: “Similar claims also are made in the field of (say), taxation. Or health and safety regulation. Or environmental law. It’s the basic anti-statist, anti-‘interference in the market’ rhetoric. So why do you think that taxation law can be effective in bringing about social outcomes, while election finance law can’t?

How would you reply?

BE: The regulation of political finance is a very different matter from the regulation of tax. Tax loopholes are relatively easy to identify and plug up, whereas the political finance ones aren’t. This is partly a function of the size of the issue – the NZ state collects $50b annually through taxes. And so if the state loses money through tax avoidance it means the government departments that run health, education, welfare, etc might be poorer by billions of dollars.

But if a loophole exists in political finance law, nothing much is affected in the day-to-day running of the state. The state has less incentive to even bother with fixing political finance loopholes and avoidance. So the IRD in NZ has something like 8,000 employees making sure that tax is paid, whereas the toothless Electoral Commission has about 4 staff to ensure that a similarly complicated system of regulations is adhered to. And while tax loopholes can be closed when they are identified, the nature of political regulations mean that when authorities attempt to close one loophole their actions merely open another one.

On the question of being anti-statist, I actually think that sometimes it’s important for the left to be anti-statist. The best socialism is that which incorporates a fair dose of libertarianism. We shouldn’t fetishise state intervention or an overwhelmingly powerful state. In many areas the left has traditionally been against the interference of the state – in terms of opposing the state telling us what sort of sexual partners we can have, or what we can read or watch. I don’t think many of the left really would want to live in a totalitarian state like China.

The Spark: What do you see as a workers’ solution to the oppressive power of money in politics? If the Electoral Finance Act is undemocratic, how ought we to oppose it, and what should we be seeking as an alternative?

BE: I wonder how many workers really believe that they are oppressed by the “power of money in politics.” Sometimes liberals try to tell us that the problem of politics is that electoral competition isn’t fair, and that if only the rich didn’t give their money to the political parties they favoured then we would have a “level playing field”, and the left would be able to get power and create a more just society. This is a total misunderstanding of how politics works and of the nature of the state in New Zealand.

Business interests have been able to exert an incredibly strong influence over politics during the last 25 years, but that’s got little to do with political finance and much more to do with the fact that they run the economy. The markets can just about dictate what governments do, so it’s a system thing, not a conspiracy.

Basically, we live in a society where a minority of people have access to gigantic amounts of money, and that’s a very good reason why those of us on the left without huge amounts of money need to organise collectively, use our much greater numbers in politics, and come up with better political programmes than the rich.

That’s the great thing about unions, and other democratic, mass-membership organisations. They allow people to join together in order to have a louder voice. The other option of trying to “level the playing field” by state intervention into political activity has been shown to be, at best, fairly useless and, at worst, draconian and counterproductive.

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