Jane Clifton’s political column in this week's Listener is a must-read for anyone interested in determining whether the so-called undue influence of money in politics makes the Electoral Finance Bill necessary. Clifton puts forward a very similar case to my blog post on Political finance and inequality in NZ, which challenges the simplistic assumption that economic inequality in New Zealand translates directly to political inequality. [Read more below]
The debate about the Electoral Finance Bill (EFB) has taken place with little regard to examining the actual premise of why the EFB is said to be necessary: because ‘money buys elections’. The supporters of the EFB repeat ad nauseam that state restrictions are needed on political activity to stop the wealthy from dominating politics through spending on advertising. However, in her column Jane Clifton suggests that this premise ‘is ill-researched to say the least’. She points out that the argument that money buys elections is merely ‘assumed’, and that we simply don’t know if it's true.
Furthermore, she asks, ‘where is the evidence that the best-funded parties get the biggest votes?’ Instead, Clifton cites the examples of well-resourced parties failing. The capital-rich National Party is the obvious case, as it’s spent ‘as much time as Labour on the Opposition benches’. Likewise, Act and the Christian parties:
Act has megabucks at its disposal. It has never so much as held the balance of power, and will be lucky to keep one of its two remaining seats next election. The various Christian-based parties have had considerable resources. Where are they in Parliament?
In contrast to these rich parties, ‘New Zealand First, which has never had a fat bank balance, has been enormously influential across several administrations.’
The Green Party is the voice in Parliament that most rabidly chants that ‘money buys elections’, yet Clifton also points out the generally overlooked detail that the Green Party is actually quite well funded these days. She rhetorically asks whether the Greens really think that they’re only in Parliament 'because they are soundly financed?’ Of course not, she replies: ‘It’s because they have a policy platform that is well understood and widely supported.’ And the same, surely, could be said about the Act party: they were elected to Parliament in the first MMP election due to the simple fact that their political programme actually appealed to a small proportion of the electorate and the party’s message – like the Alliance’s – actually had resonance in those days when the debate about neoliberalism was still alive.
Clifton sensibly argues that there are much more important determinants of political success than money:
Money cannot overpower or compensate for lack of two vital factors in elections: ideas and personalities. The Greens and the Maori Party typify ideas-based success. Peter Dunne, Winston Peters and Jim Anderton typify personality-based success. It’s not money but media coverage that makes the difference between getting elected and not. Voters need regularly to see candidates at their most potent in order to be won over to them. Paid advertising simply doesn’t have the impact of news coverage.
Furthermore, Clifton says that rather than simply assuming that large money leads to political advantage, a good argument can be made that ‘the opposite is more likely to be true’. She says commercial political advertising is actually a double-edged sword:
It may even have a negative impact. Is there anything more irritating to find in the mailbox than a glossy pamphlet featuring a cheesily grinning politician? How many people even read the inevitably platitudinous contents of such junk mail? Billboards are just more visual pollution, and while some of the TV and radio ads parties run are quite clever, we automatically discount them in our minds, obviously, they are only ads. They are biased. To believe these ads and campaigns make masses of people smite themselves on the brow and exclaim, “Now I’ve seen this, I must change my vote!” is to believe that New Zealand voters are stupid.
Clifton is undoubtedly correct – the proponents of political finance ‘reform’ regard civil society as being so weak and unintelligent that it needs protecting from being duped. She says the reality is that voters aren’t particularly easily swayed by third party political advertising: ‘What is the average voter more likely to think, confronted with a full-page newspaper advertisement by a union group or a business lobby?’ She concludes that voters are likely to be neither interested nor swayed by such obvious biased advertising.
The ‘megaphone issue’ is also brought up by Clifton. EFB proponents says that the use of megaphones have been specifically brought into the new version of the EFB so that all those candidate vehicles with big speakers can be regulated. But Clifton laughs at this:
And as for those oafs who ride through the streets megaphoning from liveried cars, you could almost suspect them of secretly working for their candidate’s rival. All in all, you could make a damn good case that electioneering is bad for political parties rather than beneficial.
Essentially Clifton is making the (very good) argument that the electorate already has an inbuilt protection against the huge use of money in politics as well as against the secretive type of project launched by the Exclusive Brethrens in 2005:
In an electorate of four million, there are very few secrets and, given our somewhat chippy national character, people who throw money around in politics are more likely to be despised than applauded. It bears repeating that the religious sect’s attempt to influence voters by anonymous leafleting was busted wide open within 48 hours, and that National did not, as a result of the campaign, get to form the government. Some analysts believe the Brethren scandal actually harmed National’s vote.
The reader might then ask why political parties bother to advertise at all. Of course some don’t bother – traditionally, mass-membership leftwing parties have steered clear of commercial advertising. Clifton adds to this the idea that political parties spend large amounts of advertising simply because they think they have to:
Politicians ‘are all terribly jealous about who raises how much money. The spending of money on electioneering becomes an end in itself, even though it may have very little to do with the outcome of an election. Pledge cards and the like are gamesmanship, the psyching out of your rival parties. A sign of health and vigour.
Clifton astutely points out that the use of the ‘Brethren fiasco’ has simply been about creating a ‘moral panic about a menace that will never flourish in this country’. She is also rightly suspicious of the idea that the state can ever fairly legislate against political inequality: ‘The trouble with trying to legislate to control electioneering is, it can’t be done without either curtailing someone’s rights, or giving someone else an unfair advantage.’ Moreover, most of the time such legislation doesn't actually work, which is why Clifton also has this to say about the new rules about anonymous donations: 'although this may make us all feel better, it's doubtful it will make us be better'. Rules about anonymous donations are notoriously easy to get around.
The logic of regulating political activity ultimately just leads to an endless legal fights. For this reason, Clifton says that the most reliable indication that a piece of legislation is bad is if ‘it’s one that keeps lawyers blissfully busy for months on end’. She concludes that the Electoral Finance Bill will do exactly that, and therefore the legal profession are going to be the biggest beneficiaries of political finance 'reform'.