Money’s fine, but not anonymity
The Electoral Finance Bill has so far had a rather unpopular ride, and not without reason. For something that the Human Rights Commission slammed as “a dramatic assault on… human rights”, it’s almost remarkable it’s still there. But somewhere along the line, proponents and opponents alike have forgotten that there two (probably more) major and separate issues with this bill. Proponents often use one to propel their argument, and opponents the other, forgetting there is more to this than a black-and-white go, or no go.
If the Human Rights Commission believed that the bill would “infringe certain human rights”, they also acknowledged that “there is a need for an extended public participation in a more neutral environment”. Basically, change is needed. For whatever it didn’t do, the Exclusive Brethren campaign did highlight a key flaw in New Zealand electoral law. Until unearthed by curious and eager journalists, the 1.2 million-dollar campaign was anonymous.
To this tune, the Act Party’s view that the bill’s disclosure requirements will “compromise people’s right to cast a secret vote” lacks substance. Freedom of speech is an essential part to any democracy, but that does not mean it should be anonymous. With every right comes responsibility; where one is free to speak, one must be prepared to be seen and to take responsibility for their actions. Donators to parties should not fear identification if they truly believe in what they’re doing.
Those whose rationale for supporting the bill is to eliminate large-scale anonymous campaigns, then—like the Progressive Coalition and New Zealand First—must then question their desire to restrict third-party spending. They are foolish to assert that it will not impact on freedom of speech. Advertisements are expensive. Campaigning is expensive. How spending caps don’t limit participation is beyond me.
The primary argument for third-party cap proponents, like the Labour Party, is that money wins elections. This is an insult to electors’ intelligence. No message, however promoted, will get through unless people believe that it is at least plausible. How well something is funded won’t change their minds, it’ll just make them aware of the idea. Did the Brethren’s campaign cost Labour the election? (It probably cost National the election.)
Richer people are at an advantage, but not an overruling one. Smarter people are, too, at an advantage. Better orators or writers are at an advantage. Heck, prettier or cuter or in any way better-looking people are an advantage—just ask any high school student. To single out money as an issue is unfair. But to allow people to push secret funding through is more unfair. People should be allowed to spend, but spenders should have to show themselves to the public.