ePolitics meets political finance in the case of Andrew Moore’s Don’t Vote Labour website being shut down after the Electoral Commission informed Moore that he stood to be fined up to $10,000 if he continued to publish it without providing his personal details. In stark contrast, the Commission has also publicly stated that political party websites don’t necessarily need to comply with the same rules. The shutting down of this anti-Labour website is the first case under the EFA that shows just how ridiculous and anti-democratic the EFA is. [Read more below]
Under New Zealand’s electoral law all websites that advocate for or against a political party are classified as ‘election advertisements’ during election year. They must therefore include the name and residential address of the authorising publisher. While some types of website activities are exempt under the Electoral Finance Act (EFA), such as blogs and newspapers, general websites are not.
Therefore the Electoral Commission has contacted Andrew Moore to demand that he publish his name and home address - No PO Box numbers allowed – to comply with the EFA. Like many individuals Moore doesn’t want to have his residential address publicised on the internet. He says that ‘Since I live at home, there is no way that I would be prepared to do this, as it would place my family and the house itself at risk’. This is a fair point. Political activists risk abusive calls, letters, visits, and possible property damage or worse when their home addresses are widely publicised. And the more radical the opinions expressed by the activist, the more likely their homes are to be targeted. So anyone not wanting their family home address being publicised on a politically contentious website is making a fair point. Moore is also probably correct when he says that the Electoral Commission's actions are ‘a breach of freedom of speech’.
A drafting error?
Kiwiblog points out that the prosecution and shutting down of websites such as dontvotelabour.co.nz is not merely due to a drafting error or oversight in the EFA, but a deliberate choice made by those political parties: ‘Labour and the Greens voted against an amendment which would have had all non commercial speech on the Internet defined as not being an election advertisement’.
It’s possibly ironic (or ridiculous) that Moore will probably soon re-launch his website as a blog and the Electoral Commission will be unable to touch him.
Political party websites not prosecuted
It is perhaps another sign of the ridiculousness of the EFA that political party websites do not necessarily need to have authorisation. The Electoral Commission spokesperson Peter Northcote says that political party websites would not necessarily fall within the definition of an election advertisement unless asking for votes. ‘If you look at the Labour site, it's not shouting 'vote for us'. It's a corporate website.’ To that end, the Electoral Commission has not yet scrutinised the websites of political parties, choosing to prioritise shutting down sites such as dontvotelabour.org.nz According to the NZ Herald, all but one of the political party websites do not currently carry the details of who has authorised the sites and where they live.
Northcote says that the Commission is unable to say exactly when the line is crossed when a political party website becomes an election advertisement, and thus ‘It's one of a number of the greyer online areas that we are seeking legal advice on’. See: Political party websites side-step election laws
This all makes a mockery of state intervention into politics and ePolitics. Not surprisingly, the NZ Herald has blasted the shutting down of the website in an editorial – see: Absurdity of vigilance already felt. The Herald comments:
Is this going to be the story of the year: constant vigilance of any form of public speech to ensure it complies with all 148 clauses of the act? How absurd that New Zealanders can no longer make a political statement in an election year without satisfying a welter of petty regulation.
The newspaper also raises the point that the defenders of political finance reform constantly made the argument that the issue wasn’t about free speech, but about restricting those who wanted to spend ‘big money’: ‘When the Herald first raised its voice against this prospect, some said we overstated the threat to free speech. The financial restrictions applied only to expensive speech’. This event clearly now puts paid to that dishonest argument. After all, the Moore website is not some expensive election advertisement – Moore says it’s only cost him about $50.
The Herald points out that although the ‘Justice Minister expects the commission to "use common sense"’ when dealing with situations such as ePolitics, ‘but how is it supposed to know whether anonymity on the web is within the law's tolerance?’ The paper says that ‘Those who delight in absurdity could have a field day from now until the election’.
Should rightwingers be defended?
So who is Andrew Moore and what are his politics? He’s a Christchurch Act party member. Does this therefore mean that the left shouldn’t defend his right to publish his views on the web? No. Moore might have a lot of objectionable politics, but the clampdown on him by the EFA-mandated Electoral Commission should obviously still be opposed.
It’s also worth pointing out that Moore has been relatively upfront about his membership of the Act party. And Ironically, for the vast majority of people that might view his website, this information is probably a lot more useful and important than knowing where he lives.
But did Moore set up his website to deliberately flout the EFA? Obviously he did. But that doesn’t make any difference. It’s good to see him testing the EFA and the Electoral Commission. His experiment has been very instructive. And regardless of his intentions, he’s still been the victim of an anti-democratic piece of legislation. Similarly, if a trade union set out to flaunt an anti-democratic and anti-union element of the Employment Relations Act (such as its prohibitions on many types of strike activity), this would also be something that the left should support.
For a different view on all this, try No Right Turn’s blog post entitled A martyr in his own mind. This argues that the requirements for including your name and address are ‘not onerous’, and Moore has ‘chosen to play the martyr’, and ‘This is not something anyone should have any sympathy for’.