Legal Beagle by Graeme Edgeler


The New Zealand Election Tax

After my last post, where listed a few of the instances of National and Labour conspiring to make election laws in their favour, I recalled, if not the biggest (*cough* broadcasting allocation), then certainly the most offensive. I'm not sure that it clearly falls within the ambit of the possible Electoral Commission review of MMP, but I intend to include it in my submission anyway. I've decided to call it the New Zealand election tax, and it's a tax National and Labour don't have to pay at all, while the more minor a party is, the higher its bill.

While it's free to register a political party in New Zealand, that's not to say it doesn't cost: the Electoral Commission doesn't charge you, but arranging for membership forms, and hiring the auditor every registered political party has to have, and all the other administrative costs probably add up. And for the parties trying to make into Parliament from the outside, and without major backers, or parliamentary staffers (or travel) to rely on, the personal costs must rack up.

But while it's officially free to register, it's not free to run. Nominating a list, or a candidate, comes at a cost. A $300 deposit is required for each candidate, and $1000 is required to nominate a party list. This in itself is a little unsettling, but worse is that this is a cost borne exclusively by minor parties. This isn't a fee, it's a deposit, and if, as a candidate, you get 5% of the electorate vote, or as a party, you win an electorate or 0.5% of the nationwide party vote, you get the money back. Which means that biggest parties, with the most money - National and Labour - don't have to pay anything to nominate candidates and run for election, but that the smaller parties in Parliament have to cough up thousands of dollars, and parties outside Parliament trying to enter the scene, pay 'election taxes' of perhaps $15k-$20k. That's not chump change for a party being run on membership fees and raffles, and it's money they don't get to spend is raising awareness of their and policies (and candidates!).

Given the inbuilt advantages of incumbency: the massively higher amounts of public broadcasting funding, and the even larger sums spent through Ministerial Services and the Parliament Service, invoicing parties trying to break in from the outside, when the parties with all the advantages don't have to pay up at all (or have to pay much less), is wrong. If it was a nomination fee paid that had to be paid by everyone, it's effect would still be most keenly felt by those on the outside, and would be bad enough, but only charging those on the outer is wrong, and there has to be a better way.

I like to think I've thought of one (though I'm open to alternatives). While I can accept that there needs to be some way of ensuring that the ballot paper isn't filled with candidates running as a joke, taxing the candidates whose parties are perhaps focusing on the party vote cannot be the best way of avoiding this. Instead, I propose that, to be nominated, a candidate should have the option of paying non-refundable fee (perhaps $500?), or should be able to have their nomination 'seconded' by a largish number of people on the electoral roll for the seat they are seeking to be nominated in (50? 60? 80? 100?). I like to think candidates, even for financially well-off parties, would welcome the opportunity of proving their local support, and it might encourage those running for minor parties to seek more members and greater community involvement. As ever, I'm open to other suggestions, but I do think that the minor party election tax we currently operate is profoundly anti-democratic, and every bit as much of a rort as the broadcasting allocation which prohibits every party other than National and Labour from even approaching a level playing field.

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