The television election advertising for the political parties have just started screening. Once again, the inequality of the system is made obvious, with those parties that least need the exposure being given the vast bulk of public money to advertise what the public already knows, and those parties that are struggling to get their message heard are marginalised by the Electoral Commission. By choosing to reward Labour and National with a million dollars each and plenty of broadcast time, but only giving a few crumbs to the parties outside Parliament, the Electoral Commission has once again shown why they are part of the problem rather than the solution to issues of political finance and today’s uneven electoral playing field. A truly democratic and fair system would have seen the advertising monies and broadcast time divided up evenly, as it happens in many other countries. Instead our election campaign continues to operate under a cartel model of political finance designed by Labour and National. [Read more below]
Has the Electoral Commission been inequitable?
Every election year the Electoral Commission is given the task of divvying up broadcast advertising money as well as free minutes for opening and closing addresses on TV and Radio. This year this giveaway involved $3.2 million and 102 minutes of additional broadcast time on-air. It’s always a fraught process for the Electoral Commission, especially since Labour and National essentially bullies the Commission to unfairly hand over most of money to the two of them. In the past Labour and National have done this by insisting that representatives of the two parties join the Electoral Commission for the decision-making process. That anti-democratic device ended last year (by the Electoral Admendment Act 2007), yet still the Commission has remained biased towards the two main parties.
In this year’s decision to unfairly divide up the money, the Electoral Commission decided to use cross-subsidisation to re-allocate most of the smaller parties’ potential money to Labour and National. Therefore despite the two biggest parties only making up about 5% of the eligible parties, they collected over 60% of the state resources! The Commission gets away with such undemocratic decisions by referring to section 75(2) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 - the legislation governing the process – which details that the Commission must take into account a number of factors in dividing the money up. What is generally misunderstood, however, is that the Commission has the ability to determine the relative weighting of those different criteria. The most important criterion in the legislation is that of ‘fairness’ – a requirement that eligible parties be provided a fair opportunity to convey their policies to the public. This logically means that the money should be evenly divided. But the Commission always chooses to downgrade the ‘fairness’ criterion, and has done so again in 2008, vastly advantaging the main two parties.
The 2008 allocations in historical context
In order to see just how unfair the Electoral Commission’s 2008 allocations of advertising, it’s worth perusing the previous allocations (in PDF form) to get an idea of how much more inequitable things are in 2008:
* Broadcasting allocation decision 2002 (PDF 70KB)
* Broadcasting allocation decision 1999 (PDF 67KB)
* Broadcasting allocation decision 1996 (PDF 68KB)
Although they’re aren’t online, it’s also worth looking at the allocations for the 1990 and 1993 elections. These elections were the last FPP competitions, yet ironically the minor parties were treated in a much more fair way.
In 1990, there was less money to divvy up ($1,850,000) and although it was clearly a two-horse race between Labour and National, the minor parties were given a relatively generous contribution. The Greens had only just established themselves a few months prior to the election, had little electoral support, no MPs, no real party organisation, but were allocated $83,250 (or 4.5% of the total allocation). They were also given 10 minutes of broadcast time for opening and closing addresses. Today, an equivalent new party receives barely a fraction of this.
Also in 1990, Jim Anderton was the sole representative of the NewLabour Party (much like he is today the sole representative of the Progressives). In that election he was given $129,500 in funding (or 7% of the total budget) and 13 minutes. Eighteen years later, taking inflation into account, the 2008 allocation to the Progressives of $100,000 (or 3% of the total budget) is a much reduced figure. Likewise, the number of minutes allocated was down to only 7. This figure of $100,000 and 7 minutes was the same for the other parliamentary parties of Act and United Future.
For the 1993 election, the minor and non-parliamentary parties also received more generous support. The Alliance only had two MPs, yet got $369,675 in funding (or 18% of the total budget) and 19.5 on-air minutes. Smaller non-parliamentary parties such as the Natural Law Party were allocated $76,990 (or 4% of the total) and 4.5 minutes.
By contrast, in 2008 the non-parliamentary parties were allocated only $17,000 each – a minuscule 0.5% of the budget. To make matters worse, they only received a miserable 1 minute of broadcast time.
Of course it’s not only Labour and National who are happy with the current arrangement. The Maori Party would have celebrated its allocation – as it nearly doubled what it received in 2005 – going from $125,000 to $240,000. Likewise, although the Green Party lost votes since its last allocation, and their opinion polls support has been poor, their latest allocation went up by $40,000 (to $240,000).
New Zealand’s history of cartel political funding
The 2008 iniquitous allocations show just how the current system of funding has been used by Labour and National parties to assert their monopoly on elections. Historically, the overall effect of the system of state funding has been to consolidate the present players in the party system, prevent the entry of new competitors, and make it more difficult for small parties to grow.
Previously, the Electoral Commission’s uneven allocation of state funding for election broadcasting has operated as an impediment to the competitiveness of new parties in New Zealand politics. Such monopolistic practices has meant that since the introduction of MMP there has only been one new political party to be elected to Parliament - the Act party, which was bankrolled by millions of dollars of private wealth. No other new party not already represented in Parliament has been able to compete with the millions of dollars of state-funded resources that the Electoral Commission has gifted to the parliamentary parties.
The legislation governing the allocation of election broadcasting funds has been constructed by National and Labour to benefit the established parties and restrict the entry of new parties into Parliament.
As No Right Turn has blogged, this year has been no different:
Otherwise, we are stacking the electoral deck in favour of the status quo, behaviour we expect in a shitty Central Asian autocracy, not a democracy like New Zealand…. This should not be satisfactory to anyone who considers themselves a democrat. Free and fair elections require a level playing field - not one rigged to favour the status quo
Equal access for all parties?
Many countries allocate direct access broadcasting time on the basis of equality between the different political parties or candidates. This is done so on the democratic basis that all nation-wide parties need to be given a fair chance to promote their policies. The political finance expert Pinto-Duschinsky points to the Czech Republic, Italy, India, Mexico and Japan, as having equal or nearly-equal distribution of broadcasting time or money to parties. Similarly, France, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands operate their election advertising on this basis as well.
There is a very strong argument to be made that all parties contesting the list vote in New Zealand should receive *exactly* the same allocation of funding. Any other allocation is contrary to natural justice and notions of democracy and 'level playing fields'.
Interestingly, the Act party has been one of the biggest critics of the uneven allocation of funding. After this years’ allocation was announced, Act party leader Rodney Hide says the whole system is ‘rotten to the core – listen to his interview on RNZ National. Previously the party has argued strongly for a totally equal division of broadcast funding. The party has asserted that the uneven distribution of such funds is inconsistent with the Electoral Act, because the legislation contains,
a number of measures which make it clear that all candidates and parties are to be treated equally. The size of deposits and limits on campaign expenditure are identical for all parties and candidates. All rules are the same for all parties and candidates’ (Tate, 1999: pp.1-2).
The party has therefore argued that:
The democratic principle on which allocations should be based therefore is that all registered political parties conducting a nationwide campaign should receive the same amount of time and money. It is grossly undemocratic and unfair that some parties should receive more time and money from the taxpayer than other parties (ibid).
Furthermore, according to Act,
This is censorship. The only justification for the legislation under which this censorship was imposed can be that Parliament intended that equal time be made available for all parties. Any other allocation is contrary to the principle of free speech, undemocratic and must be an attempt to influence the outcome of the election (Tate, 1999: pp.1-2).
Electoral expert Alan McRobie has supported this view, saying, ‘the differential allocations of state funding and broadcasting time appear to run counter to the long-standing objective of providing all who seek elective office with equality of opportunity’ (McRobie, 2001: p.190).
The previous allocations of broadcasting monies was designed when there were two parties who were keen to make sure that other new parties could not compete effectively with them. A cartel has previously operated in dividing up the broadcast allocation amongst the parliamentary parties. This has previously given only a few crumbs to the parties outside Parliament.
Unfortunately, in this period of political finance change, it is sad that the Electoral Commission has continued with the old style of allocating money along lines of contemporary public strength. This goes against all the popular desire in favour of "fairness" and equality in political finance. Essentially, the Electoral Commission needs to be reminded of the Broadcasting Act s 75(2)) requires that eligible parties be provided a fair opportunity to convey their policies to the public.
But maybe we need to go further that this. National-blogger David Farrar has sensibly suggested that
One way to even the odds might be to redirect the broadcasting allocation away from the parliamentary parties, so that only parties without existing MPs are eligible to receive taxpayer funds for their broadcasting. The parties in Parliament have the huge benefit of three years of free publicity through their MPs but over $10 million a year of funding for their parliamentary parties. It is healthy to have new parties break into Parliament (something only ACT has managed to date without the benefit of an existing MP). So giving each non parliamentary party $100,000 to $150,000 would help them have a decent chance against the existing parliamentary parties.
An excellent idea. But somehow I doubt that this idea is going to prove popular with the Labour-National cartel.