Hard News by Russell Brown


The Finance Campaign

It's not so long ago that the New Zealand Herald didn't do campaigning journalism. Acting on the assumption that they were in charge of the "paper of record", the Herald's editors kept things stately and somnolent.

The paper began to wake up with a change of management in the 1990s. It embarked on the odd campaign. This was a good thing. The passive transcription of fact isn't the sole work of journalism, and newspapers and their readers can both be enlivened by the taking up of a cause.

But yesterday's rallying cry -- the front-page editorial headed 'Democracy under attack', the impressionist image of a woman in a gag -- was in a number of ways quite odd.

For a start, the news story (under the headline Democracy under attack from Government Bill, lest anyone be in danger of missing the message) that provided the platform for the editorial wasn't exactly a prizewinner. (I should note that Audrey Young has, in previous stories, made a lot of the running on this issue, so this isn't a dig at her.)

It reported that Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens "could" have done a "backroom deal" that would exempt government departments from the provisions of the Electoral Finance Act, to be "pushed through Parliament" this month. "Suggestions" of such immunity, if borne out, "would give powerful ammunition to the bill's opponents."

Ahem. We all know that the Electoral Finance Bill has been a debacle in the drafting -- bad enough to end the Cabinet career of former Justice Minister Mark Burton, who was dumped last month. But wouldn't it be prudent to wait a week day or two and actually find out what changes have been made to it (although it seems certain that restrictions on anonymous donations will be included -- as they should have been all along) , rather than go up to 11 out of 10 about what you think might happen?

It's tempting to suppose that the editors were a little concerned that their thunder might be stolen. Yesterday and today, the Herald has quoted the Human Rights Commission's scathing submission on the bill, and reported that the commission has called for the bill to be scrapped altogether

The HRC submission is concerned, rightly, with the over-reaching definitions of election advertising and regulation of third parties, and wants the bill either rewritten from scratch or significantly altered to meet its concerns (it suggests alterations). Among other things, it wants a much tighter definition of what constitutes election advertising.

Even the Law Society, which did call for the bill to be scrapped, told the select committee that it "endorses the objectives in the bill. We accept that internationally there are precedents for restrictions on electoral advertising. There should be transparency as far as donations and third party activity are concerned. However, this bill does not achieve the right balance between these restrictions and requirements, and the objective of the promotion of participation by the public in parliamentary democracy."

Remarkably, the Herald, insofar as its stance is explained in the editorial, does not endorse the objectives of the bill. It sees no problem in very wealthy individuals being able to anonymously pursue their interests by funnelling millions of dollars through secret party trusts that are opaque to the public. And for the spending of that money on electioneering to be open slather apart from the three months presently deemed to be the official election campaign.

This seems an odd stance for a self-styled champion of democracy, and it is far beyond the positions held by the National Party, David Farrar or Rodney Hide (who recently made the meritorious suggestion that the government should work with the Human Rights Commission on changes to the bill).

The Herald's argument for such a position is essentially pulled out of its editorial ass:

Parties have different advantages. If National has more well-heeled donors, Labour probably has the more committed and articulate foot soldiers.

There are a few other flaws in the argument: the editorial rails against the $60,000 spending cap on individual third-party campaigns, while the news story confidently speculates that the final cap will actually be twice that. Both pieces strive to give the impression that opposition to the bill has been near-universal. In fact, about two thirds of the submissions could be construed (whether they explicitly say so or not) as being emphatically opposed to the bill. This sounds a lot: but remember, submissions against the Civil Unions Bill ran at more than 90%.

I'm more inclined to trust Steven Price and Graeme Edgeler's work on behalf of the Coalition for Open Government, and to believe that the bill needed amendment (among other things, COG recommended dispensing with the clumsy registration requirement for small third-party campaigners) but serves an important purpose in guarding against elections being won with the largest wallets.

There was a whiff of desperation in the paper's follow-up story online yesterday afternoon: it declared that "public opinion has swung behind the Herald's call for the Electoral Finance Bill to be scrapped", using its "Your Say" forum as a yardstick, and declaring "that the campaign has won the support today of National leader John Key, who reiterated a pledge to scrap the law if his party leads the next Government, and New Zealand Broadcasting School lecturer Paul Norris."

That last one is more than a little disingenuous. At no point did Norris endorse the principles of the Herald's "Attack on Democracy" campaign: he merely backed the paper's right to advocate with a front-page editorial.

As do I. But that's not the same thing as being won over by a campaign that is as long on invective as it is short on measured thinking. If this bill were to be dumped, there would be no prospect of another one being passed in time for next year's campaign. I don't think that's a good result.

Ironically, the response to the Herald's poll on the question "Is New Zealand becoming a less free and democratic country?" -- linked to in a fit of overkill from the editorial and the news stories -- suggested that the public wasn't quite as frenzied as the editors. By late afternoon, about three quarters of the 7000-odd respondents to the poll were saying "No."

Update: The poll was hacked and the young man involved says he's very sorry ...


A little entertainment news: people in this town are paying to go out and see live music. On Thursday night, both the Veils and Liam Finn sold out their shows, and the Electric Confectionaires packed 'em in to their abum launch at the Dogs' Bollix. On Saturday, I managed to solve my quandrary by seeing both the Phoenix Foundation's second night at Galatos (they're at the top of their game - languid and assured even when they're rockin' out), skipping their encore and getting over to the King's Arms to catch the last half dozen shows of Garageland's comeback gig, including a remarkable singalong by hundreds of punters for 'Fingerpops' -- it was a happy room.

I also discovered that not only will Jed Town be playing support fr John Cale on Thursday, he will be doing so with a backing band composed of … the Mint Chicks!

Also, it's just been announced that Sonic Youth bring their Don't Look Back show -- a complete recital of 1988 Daydream Nation album, plus more, to the Bruce Mason centreon Feb 16 next year.

And one more brilliant thing. Bill Direen will be touring with the new Builders lineup before he heads back to France, as follows:

Arc Cafe, Dunedin. Friday 23rd November 2007.

The Penguin Club, Oamaru, Saturday 24th November 2007.

Al's Bar, Christchurch. Sunday 25th November 2007.

Mussell Inn, Takaka. Monday 26th November 2007.

Mighty Mighty, Wellington. Wednesday 28th November2007.

Ward Lane, Hamilton, Thursday 29th November2007.

The Masonic, Devonport, Auckland. Friday 30th November 2007.

Otis Mace is tour support (they're joined by Matthew Bannister for the Hamilton show) and Bill will play a solo set before being joined onstage by the Builders. Choice.

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