A Labour Party-affiliated trade union, the EPMU, Is attempting to register as a ‘third party’ under the Electoral Finance Act (EFA), even though it isn’t required to and isn’t necessarily eligible to. This raises some interesting questions about the relationship between unions and the Labour Party, and about further problems with the EFA. [Read more below]
EFA causing problems for unions
New Zealand’s largest union, the NZ Amalgamated Engineering, Printing & Manufacturing Union (EPMU) has registered with the Electoral Commission despite the fact that it claims to have no plans to run ‘political advertising’ for this year’s general election – see: Union to register under new law. The EPMU intends to run issues-based campaigns that do not require Electoral Commission registration. However the union has done so because the EFA is very unclear about the definition of ‘political advertising’, and therefore the union is registering because it’s ‘better to be safe than sorry’. The registration will therefore reduce the possibility of litigation by those who might argue that the union’s issue advertising campaigns are actually ‘political advertising’.
Essentially the problems relate to the absurd idea of political finance reformers that they can separate (and define) ‘political advertising’ and ‘issue advertising’ and then apply different rules to the two categories. Such an attempt at separating such advertising is done so that they can argue that their regulations do not too tightly control freedom of speech. The reformers say that if your advertising is merely ‘issue advertising’ (ie it relates to political issues and not political parties) then this can be carried out by non political parties. But such a distinction is typically complex and unrealistic, and it thus invites all sorts of confusion and litigation. (Of course, the only reason any of this is necessary is because the state has imposed – since the 1996 election – a limit on how much any political party can spend, which is a silly rule that causes more problems than solutions). The distinction between ‘political advertising’ and ‘issue advertising’ also means that ‘third parties’ can covertly campaign in favour of their allied political party without their expenses being counted towards the expenditure cap of that party. Therefore unions are supposed to be able to run advertisements that relate to things like workplace issues (ACC etc) and be exempt.
The EPMU’s registration is therefore an admission that the EFA lacks clarity and is inadequate in the task of protecting the right of citizens to run issue-based campaigns during election year.
This is ironic because, the EPMU was a strong supporter of the EFA. The union claimed that the legislation would lead to greater transparency in electoral politics. Instead, of course, it’s leading to greater confusion, opaqueness, litigation, and will unfortunately obscure the public’s understanding of the use of political finance in elections.
Financial support for the Labour Party
Not only is the EPMU the largest private sector union, it’s also Labour’s largest affiliated union. Therefore it shouldn’t be surprising that the union spends a fair amount in elections. The EPMU has announced that it plans to spend $120,000 on its campaigns and party donations in 2008. This might sound like a lot, but it’s generally less than the union used to contribute towards Labour’s election effort. In general, the money spent on elections and political activity appears to have declined.
In 1996 the union waged a considerable-sized campaign in parallel to the Labour Party’s election campaign. Primarily it was based upon opposition to the National Government’s Employment Contracts Act, but it also highlighted issues relating to industry training, employment, health and education. The union also urged its members not to vote for National. The dollar amount spent is not known, but was likely to be in the hundreds of thousands.
Then in 1999 the EPMU spent $300,000 on a campaign to ‘change the government’. This mainly revolved around five anti-ECA advertisements. The campaign was controversial because the Television Commercials Advisory Board (TVCAB) to allow the screening of its advertising campaign on the basis of it being ‘political advertising’. In the same election the EPMU made donations to the Labour Party of $80,000.
In 1999 the EPMU also gave the Alliance party a $20,000 donation. This was apparently on the basis that the Alliance’s policies ‘were in the best interests of their members’ (Guyon Espiner, 2001: p.C1). It was also probably a response to the Alliance’s much closer relationship with Labour and the Alliance’s willingness to support the incoming Labour Government. In the following election of 2002, the flagging Alliance under Laila Harre’s leadership was denied a cent from the EPMU. Instead the union made a donation of $19,000 to Jim Anderton’s Progressive Coalition Party. In that same election, the EPMU gave Labour $70,000.
In the last election, the EPMU is listed as giving $40,000 to the Labour Party. By contrast, the NDU gave $24,000, and the Service and Food Workers' Union gave $20,000. Outside of election year, the EPMU much less.
The EPMU is not an entirely separate organisation to the Labour Party, in the sense that it is an affiliated part of the party. David Farrar at Kiwiblog has also commented on problematic issue of a party-affiliated organization such as the EPMU being able to run parallel election campaigns that are not regulated by the EFA:
It may be an interesting issue for the next review of electoral law about whether an organisation that is formally affiliated to a political party, and whose members automatically are voting members of a political party should be seen as different from the political party for electoral spending purposes. The Young Nats activities get included as part of National’s, and Rainbow Labour would be included as part of Labour’s. The difference between a constituent group and an affiliated organisation might not be hugely different. For example both Rainbow Labour and affiliated unions have a representative on the Labour Party Ruling Council, and both have automatic membership eligibility - join them and you are automatically a member of Labour should you wish to exercise those rights.
This issue has now become much greater, after Farrar wrote to the Electoral Commission to challenge the EPMU’s request to register. See: EPMU’s third party eligibility
The EPMU influence within Labour?
Given that the EPMU is the largest affiliate of the Labour Party and that it runs campaigns to increase the party’s vote, its surprising how little influence the union appears to have within the party. In particular, the union has mostly failed (so far) in its strategy to get is officials elected to the Labour parliamentary caucus. Instead, the Service Workers Federation Union has become dominant in the Labour caucus. The only EPMU official to be elected was Lynn Pillay, who’s quality is questioned by most commentators – for example, she was described as by Ian Templeton's Trans-Tasman briefing as ‘a professional non-entity’. Her main claim of influence in Parliament has been the chairing of the Justice and Electoral select committee while it considered the Electoral Finance Bill…
This year has already seen the EPMU fail in its bid to get its president selected as a Labour candidate for the 2008 election. Don Pryde was put forward by the union for the safe Labour seat of South Dunedin, but was easily beat by Claire Curran. Despite commentators suggesting that the EPMU would be able to ‘have enough members to stack the floor vote’ in the nomination selection process, the EPMU candidate never really came close to winning. The fact that the president of the union couldn’t win a nomination suggested that the EPMU had less influence than many belive.
Within the left and the union movement in New Zealand, the EPMU is generally seen as a right-wing union. The EPMU has been deeply hostile to any forces to the left of Labour unless they are accommodating of Labour’s rule and dominance. (See for example, the EPMU/Labour blog The Standard, which is phobic towards any non-compliant force to the left of Labour).
For example, in 2002 the EPMU stood its organizer, Lynn Pillay against Alliance leader Laila Harre in the seat of Waitakere (despite the fact hat Pillay was high on the Labout Party list anyway). This was despite the fact that Harre had been on of the most supportive ministers for the EPMU members, and was the only party leader to come out strongly in support of policies such as four weeks' annual leave. The EPMU went out of its way to get Harre (and thus the Alliance) out of Parliament. Pillay, the partner of the EPMU's Auckland regional secretary, Mike Sweeney, was well funded, but the plug was pulled on funds for the Alliance. National Secretary Andrew Little stated: ‘We're obviously not going to encourage one of our own officials to stand and then give money to Laila's campaign as well’.
Socialist activist Nick Kelly has also complained about the union’s negative influence:
On issues like globalisation, the war on Afghanistan and other workers issues, the EPMU is on the Right of both Labour and the Council of Trade Unions. In the past three years, the EPMU has been more effective in dragging government policy to the Right than ACT.
Likewise, Chris Trotter has written about the political character of the union, detailing its negative and destructive influence on the left in New Zealand:
In its earlier incarnation as the Engineers Union, it had a richly deserved reputation as the union the Right turned to whenever the Left needed bringing into line…. It was the Engineers who made sure Ruth Dyson - and not Jim Anderton - became president of the Labour Party in 1988. And it was the 50,000-strong card vote of the engineers that swung the CTU away from a general strike against the Employment Contracts Act in 1991…..The union also took the lead in promoting the "partnership model" of industrial relations in the early 1990s and spent liberally to ensure Labour's stranglehold on the trade union movement never weakened.
Andrew Little: future Labour Party leader?
The EPMU’s influence on Labour, the left, and the country could be about to grow. Andrew Little, the union’s National Secretary is considering becoming a Labour MP. So what is Little’s background and agenda?
An ex-student politician (with degrees in law, public policy and philosophy), Little became ‘the first professional, non-trades person’ to head the EPMU when he took over the leadership from Rex Jones in 2000. He had previously been a lawyer for the union since 1992, quickly working his way to the top. Little is obviously an astute and ambitious modern unionist.
Assuming he comes into Parliament in 2008, and assuming Labour is thrown out of government in the same election, what will Little’s future be? Some say that Little is already the heir apparent to Helen Clark. The rumour is that if Clark loses the election she’ll attempt to say on as Labour leader for as long as 18 months in order to stop Phil Goff replacing her and to give Little time to prove his worth and get the numbers to accept the leadership when Clark then steps down.
As an indication of Little’s ambition and astuteness, Little raised his public profile in 2006 by going public about his dissatisfaction with Labour’s handling of both the Philip Field saga and the pledge card overspending scandal. Notably, although he was praised by commentators for speaking out, he had only done so well after it was very clear which was the political wind was blowing on these issues.