Home > Election, Party funding > New Zealand election controls and third parties

New Zealand election controls and third parties

The New Zealand government has announced new reforms to its election financing laws. Among the measures is a proposal for ‘parallel campaigners’ spending over $12,000 to register with the Electoral Commission – these are third parties campaigning to support or oppose a political party or candidate in an election.

At first sight this looks like the British controls on third party election spending. In UK law, third parties have to register if they are going to spend over £10,000 in England or £5,000 in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland on election campaigning. There are several major differences between the British approach and the New Zealand proposals. The British thresholds for third party spending apply in the 12 months before a general election, whereas the New Zealand proposals will apply in the 3 months prior to an election.

The New Zealand Justice Minister said the register would be ‘publicly available to ensure openness and transparency concerning the identities of parallel campaigners.’ Yet as some commentators on the proposal suggest, whether this is effective depends on what has to be registered. If no more than providing a name and address is required, then there is the potential for front organisations, with unknown sources of funding, to be used to avoid the transparency requirements.  Here lies the biggest difference between the New Zealand proposals and the British laws. Under the British rules, registered third parties have to report donations received of over £7,500, where that donation is to fund electoral spending. In addition, the British rules put a cap on the amount a third party can spend in the 12 months before a general election. By contrast, the New Zealand proposals require neither.

I would be interested to know just how much of a concern third party spending has been in New Zealand. In the UK, the number of registered third parties is relatively small. At the time of writing, there are only 19 third parties registered with the Electoral Commission.  Among these are several trade unions, but 38 Degrees – billed as the British equivalent to MoveOn – is also registered. The current register also includes one individual, Patrick Evershed, who spent £48k in the 2005 election and has donated money to the Conservative Party. Many of the third parties in recent elections have spent tens of thousands – although in the 2005 general election the Conservative Rural Action Group and the union Unison spent over half a million pounds each. Maybe a close election this year will stimulate more third party electoral activity.

The biggest concerns about money in politics in Britain have focused on donations rather than third parties. The million pound plus donations to parties dwarf the sums spent by third parties on electoral activities. This is understandable, given that there is no limit on donations and it is easier for a wealthy person or group to simply bankroll a party’s campaign, rather than establish their own campaign. Donations have also generated the biggest with transparency, for example where companies and unincorporated associations have acted as front organisations.

The New Zealand proposals did consider some additional restrictions on third parties, such as a cap on their electoral activities. However, this was rejected, given the strong opposition from some groups. Discussing this point, the Cabinet papers quote the Human Rights Commission about the impact of spending limits on free speech:

in an era in which social networking internet sites are playing an ever expanding role, the assertion that spending limits are a constraint on freedom of expression is becoming increasingly untenable.

The point is interesting as I often hear arguments that controls on election spending are less necessary given the opportunities to speak on the internet – the point being that there is less need for regulation since more people can disseminate expression to a wide audience. The Human Rights Commission seem to turn that conclusion on its head – namely that spending controls have less impact on speech because, even with a limit, people can still communicate using inexpensive means. Under this view, that people can disseminate their expression cheaply online breaks the link between money and speech.  Interesting point, but not sure I agree with either view and, as I argue in chapter 8 of Democracy Distorted, money remains important in getting heard online (just as it is in the offline world).

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