Monday, December 03, 2007

Final thoughts before urgency

Labour are determined to enhance participatory democracy by ramming through the Electoral Finance Bill by the end of the year. Tomorrow will see the start of one of the harshest, meanest, longest sittings in NZ's parliamentary history. For their sins, Labour have only themselves to blame. What remains to be seen is whether the Greens can regain any of the moral high ground.

It seems like yesterday that I was sitting in class listening to Dr Helena Catt outline her thoughts on how electoral finance could be reformed. It involved true transparency of election funding, with both state and private contributions playing their part. What with Parliamentary Services and the broadcasting allocations currently used to fund party advertising, it is a no-brainer to include taxpayer funding in any new scheme.

It involved simplicity, thereby fostering public participation by clarifying what the rule book said.

I may have misheard, but what little Dr Catt said about "third party" regulation involved a carrot and stick approach. Yes, third parties could be registered, but in return they too might have dibs on public funding to express their voices come election time. It was an inspired way to address the democratic deficit of falling voter turnout. Get people involved in third parties and lobby groups, saying things in their own voice in their own way. Handshake it into the mainstream audience through allocated funding. Brilliant.

So, back in April 2006, the Electoral Commission had a pretty good idea of how to tidy the whole thing up. There was nothing preventing the government from throwing these ideas out to the public forum then and there. Ineptly, they bled the state funding story out to test the waters.
It was an early sign of a complete mishandling of such a delicate matter. The waters seethed like a Rotorua mudpool and the government threw up their hands up in pain and defeat, dismissing public funding as political suicide.

Instead, they chose a more drawn-out method of self-immolation. The Electoral Finance Bill was drawn up in secret, a most novel method of increasing democratic participation.

The Electoral Funding Symposium in June was timed to coincide with the release of the draft EFB. It was a reasonable enough assumption. A light Order Paper allowed ample time for the process of legislating the Bill. Who in their right mind would attempt to push through such a controversial Bill less than 12 months before a general election?

The Symposium was to provide a forum on the EFB. Lacking a body to dissect, it ended up being an interesting morning of case studies and overview of existing electoral finance structures, followed by a yawning range of party policy statements in the afternoon.

The launch of the Electoral Finance Bill in July made the KiwiSaver launch look lucid in comparison. Mark Burton couldn't sell umbrellas to Aucklanders, let alone such a mish-mash of mischievous mayhem. I'm flabbergasted that none of Labour's strategists saw this mess coming. What is it with this year? Who died or quit? 2007 seems to be the year Labour lost its head and went feral.

And I have an abiding suspicion that the left wing voting bloc is going to get very feral next year. Methinks Labour have put a big banana skin in the path of the Greens and the Greens are blithely heading straight for it. Even in its current incarnation, the EFB will end up biting the Greens more than Labour. By supporting the EFB, the Greens may be creating their own nemesis.

Judging from Jeanette Fitzsimons launching the F Bomb on the steps of parliament, they are keenly aware of what is at stake. If the Greens are responsible for moderating the EFB in such a way that NORML may be exempt from its effect, that's all well and good. However, it does not remove the very strange precedents still embedded in this Bill. It does not mitigate the reprehensible way this Bill was put together, nor the way it will be rammed through without proper public consultation and input.

How can the Greens salvage some integrity? It's a shame that National have ruled out any deals on the Bill. For National, not the Greens. The Nats have eliminated any chance for bonus points on the Section 59 precedent. John Key will not save the day this time. It's up to the Green MPs to score the points instead.

On a minor victory level, the Greens could amend where they can, and admit the Bill is flawed and ugly. They could agree to the EFB on condition that an amendment is included that terminates the EFB after the next election. It would coincide with the death of the Interim Meaning Bill too. Russel Norman has gone on record for supporting a Citizen's Jury. A Royal Commission does not rule this out. The Nats have already said they'll repeal, so there's nothing lost in the end.

If the Greens are looking for a dramatic flourish, there's another option. Kill the Bill. Not in its entirety, just on necessary clauses. No-one in Labour has yet demonstrated the fixation on January 1st being the start of the regulated period. Three months prior is the generally accepted standard. Vote down January 1 and stick with three months. One could quibble over things such as fixing the election date in stone (notwithstanding a vote of no-confidence) as a pre-requisite. Or the Greens could throw out defintion (ii), therefore defining an electoral advertisement only as attempting to persuade to vote or not vote explicitly for a party or candidate (i).

Nandor, Meyt and Keith crossed the floor for the Dog Microchipping Bill. Surely they can do it again for a much more important reason?