There is increasing awareness that the Electoral Finance Act is anti-democratic. However, many other elements of New Zealand’s electoral law are also problematic and need to be addressed. The Electoral Act 1993 and Broadcasting Act 1989 have all sorts of very important rules that decrease electoral participation, democracy, and generally infringe civil liberties. The barriers placed on state servants standing in elections is finally getting some attention. Today’s NZ Herald opinion piece by Pat Baskett entitled Election-time rules for state servants mildly threatening provides a decent flag in the air. Baskett argues that the directions given to state servants (ie teachers, defence personnel, government department workers, police, etc) about standing in elections, joining political parties, expounding a party line, or having a political bumper sticker on your car are rather draconian. [Read more below]
Commenting on the State Services Commission’s General Election 2008: Guidance for State Servants, Pat Baskett says she’s glad he’s not employed in this area, otherwise she would be watching her back. The tone of the ‘advice’ is ‘mildly threatening’ she says, and ‘the detail of this document is extraordinary’. Therefore, according to Baskett, the document ‘goes beyond reasonable protection of state employees from political pressure or abuse and fails to discriminate between professional and private domains’.
The private domains are under scrutiny by the employer in that employees are ‘exhorted to consider carefully when and how they express their political views, not only at work but outside work hours as well’. Of course the document is full of vagueness and just like the EFA is difficult to interpret, which obviously has a chilling effect on participation by these workers. It cautions against being ‘active’ in politics but fails to clearly state where the boundaries are:
Its employees are assured they have the same right to free speech as other citizens. But they are told to avoid expounding a party line or expressing views that could be considered critical of their job, in conversations with colleagues or friends.
The SSC vaguely says that the more senior your position, the more you should be inhibited. Baskett infers from this the following: ‘no delivering flyers, no party bumper sticker on your car, let alone allowing a hoarding to be erected on your property’.
Baskett particularly dislikes the threatening words applied to discussion of those employees that stand for election but are unsuccessful:
The consequences of being unsuccessful, however, although not spelled out, have a peculiarly ominous ring. Potential candidates are advised to "consider carefully the consequences of standing for Parliament and being unsuccessful." Circumstances may arise, they are warned, where it is appropriate for an employer to assign them different duties when they return to work after an unsuccessful campaign. One might ask whether different in this context implies demotion.
One current example of all of this is Christchurch teacher Paul Hopkinson, who has been suspended without pay from his school because he is a candidate in the upcoming general election for the Workers Party. Rather than worrying about demotion, he probably has to worry about how survive without an income. The school has suspended him because they want to enforce the Electoral Act 1993 that says state servants must step down from their positions if they stand for elections. Such rules show just how electoral law normally operates to prevent participation and as a barrier to the less wealthy.
As Baskett points out, ‘Democracies thrive on criticism and comment or so we believe. Yet the public service is presented as somehow vulnerable, or perhaps inviolate’. It therefore seems time to get rid of all of these unnecessary and bureaucratic barriers to democracy.