The Labour Party obviously hasn’t learned much from the severe public ignomany suffered when it was revealed that the party had been paying for its electioneering Pledge Card with public funds while in government. Their latest rort – running a heavily branded bus campaign around the country – is no less electioneering, yet Labour has once again used taxpayer funds to pay for this political advertising. This blog post looks at whether such electioneering can really be called ‘legitimate’, even if the exercise is made to fit into the dodgy Parliamentary Service rules. Regardless of the expenditure’s legal status, few voters will appreciate having to pay for such overt political advertising. [Read more below]
As with most political financecontroversies, it’s hard – but important – to confirm the facts involved in Labour’s Axe the Tax tour. Below is what we appear to know:
Labour Party MPs are touring the country in a large Labour-red bus which is heavily branded with a large slogan of ‘Axe the tax’ together with party logos.
- Leader Phil Goff claims that the cost to taxpayers is $30,000.
- The payment for the bus is coming out of Phil Goff’s parliamentary Leaders Office Fund.
Is it electioneering?
There should be no doubt that Labour’s bus campaign tour is a form of electioneering – regardless of who is paying for it. Political communications scholars are clear on this type of activity. We now live in the age of the permanent campaign, where politicians and political parties are constantly undertaking activities that seek to improve their public support in preparation for the following election. In terms of this, all branding and communication can be seen as an attempt to improve the number of votes received in the future. The fact that we are not officially in an ‘election year’ is now seen as irrelvant to a definition of election advertisements.
Yet the Labour Party might like to argue that their bus tour is not electioneering because they are not actually asking for anyone’s vote. They would point to the taxpayer-funded bus only having campaign slogans and their party logo on it, and no soliciting of votes.
It’s worth turning to Assoc Prof Clare Robinson of Massey University to deal with this argument. Robinson – who is probably New Zealand’s preeminient political communications expert – wrote an excellent chapter entitled ‘”Vote for me”’: Political Advertising’, published in Informing Voters? Politics, Media and the New Zealand Election 2008 in which she goes into a lot of detail about the defintion of political advertising and electioneering. As an example, she cites the Labour Party’s distribution of red balloons with the party’s logo and website on them and gives her expert opinion that such activity is definitely electioneering: ‘This is in fact a very simple issue. Without question, logos are election advertisements’. She elaborates:
There is no question that commercial logos are persuasive. There is no reason to consider political party logos any differently. Political party logos encourage or persuade voters to vote, or not to vote, through repeated exposure and association with people, events and messages. The party logo encapsulates the essence of the party; it may be thought of as the bookmark or the placeholder for a political party (p.76).
Robinson argues that to say a party logo isn’t a political advertisement is like saying that a logo for Coke or Apple computers isn’t advertising just because the logos don’t explicitly say ‘drink Coke’ or ‘buy an iPhone’.
So, thus Labour’s "Axe the Tax" campaign, which promotes Labour policies and Labour as a brand is definitelly electioneering.
Is Labour’s spending within the parliamentary rules?
Labour is claiming that the bus campaign is within the Parliamentary Service rules on expenditure, citing the deliberately-vague and contentious rule that ‘MPs can use public funds to communicate their policies and messages to the voters’. It all depends on how to define this concept of ‘communicating policies’, and determining where to draw the line between communication and electioneering. In my view – although recently the boundaries of permitted advertising use have been stretched – Labour’s bus campaign clearly crosses the vague line.
However, to defend the bus campaign there are precidents for Labour to cite that constitute a similar type of overt electioneering advertising paid for with parliamentary funds. For example, in in 2003, United Future bought about $80,000 worth of full-page colour advertisements in daily newspapers ‘to report on how it says it has made MMP work since the last election’ (McLoughlin, 2003). The ads outlined reasons to support the party and ways to contact it, albeit without actually saying ‘Vote United Future’ or ‘Join United Future’.
Similarly, Labour could cite the purchase, also in 2003, by National and New Zealand First of about 50 high-visibility outdoor advertising billboards. The billboards featured pictures of their respective leaders, Bill English and Winston Peters, with campaigning slogans, and were estimated to cost about $180,000 (Milne, 2003).
But are the above examples the type of thing that Labour would really want to cite? The public now has a much more critical attitude towards political finance and is sensitive to politicians’ theft of public resources for political gain.
What’s more, in the above case of parliamentary-funded billboards, the Labour Party’s then president Mike Williams expressed surprise saying that the parliamentary rules must be ‘incredibly loose’ (quoted in NZPA). Progressive Coalition leader Jim Anderton was amazed at the new development: ‘It looks remarkably like electioneering to me but as long as you don’t ask for votes or ask for money, you can do it’ (quoted in Milne, 2003). Green Party co-leader Rod Donald was clearly of the view that although the ads did not breach the rules, they were ‘party political propaganda being paid for by taxpayers’ (quoted in McLoughlin, 2003). With great prescience, Donald also stated that ‘Political parties are asking for trouble when they highlight the lack of rules in this way’ (ibid). Indeed, and Labour are doing this once again.
Is Labour adhering to the Parliamentary Service rules in full?
The rules about such expenditure state that the advertising must relate to parliamentary business and not promote the party. Certainly to the voters coming across the "Axe the Tax" bus campaign, the advertising would have the appearance of being paid for by the political parties rather than being state-funded material dealing with parliamentary business. The bus is, after all, heavily branded with the party’s colours and logos. In respect of this, the Parliamentary Service rules only say that where parliamentary-funded advertisements use party logos, they must also either include the MP’s parliamentary contact details or display the Parliamentary Crest (Parliamentary Service, 2001: p.9). The crest is supposed to be the same size as the party logo used and the logo ‘should not be the dominant feature’ (ibid: p.6). Generally, however, this rule appears to be disregarded or inadequately observed by Labour, calling into question whether the bus campaign meets even the incredibly loose Parliamentary Service rules.
Furthermore, all taxpayer-funded party activities are required to be strictly separately from any membership administration or advocacy. No donations or fees can be associated with any such parliametnary funding. So, if any membership forms, donations, fees are changing hands in the campaign or being stored on the bus, this again is likely to cause problems for Labour staying within the Parliamentary Service rules with this campaign.
Is Labour’s bus campaign legitimate?
It is possible that Labour’s use of parliamentary funding is totally legal while not actually being legitimate. Although this might sound oxymoronic, in the academic area of political corruption there is a strong distinction between what is legal and what is legitimate. Often politicians can be undertake corrupt activities that they pass laws to make legal, but this doesn’t mean those activities are legitimate. The best definition of ‘political corruption’, therefore, according to such scholars is that it is that which ‘the public deems inappropriate’ rather than what fits into the laws made by the politicians themselves.
In this case, the public are likely to judge the Labour Party’s activities to be a rort and illegitimate. Certainly the Parliamentary Service rules are designed to be vague enough to allow parties ‘to promote a policy’ which, strictly speaking, this bus trip might do. But as David Farrar says in a posting on Kiwiblog, the public are likely to be rather suspicious of something that is so obviously funded to produce photo opportunities rather than genuine policy discussions:
there is a danger that the public don’t care much about whether or not it is within the rules, and will judge the spending on the basis of whether it is providing information, or a series of photo ops…. Voters know that it is not about communicating with voters – because if it was, it is hugely inefficient. It is about a series of photo ops, and desire to get media coverage.
Labour is not the first party to utilise parliamentary-funded vehicles in an electioneering way. Nor is it the first and only party to stretch the use of these resources to such absurb lengths. But there is now a whole new political environment that is highly sensitive to issues of political finance and political corruption. It is possible that Labour’s abuse – and that of the other parties – of such resources will not be tolerated for too much longer. As with Labour’s payback of the money spent on the 2005 Pledge Card, it is not inconceivable that we will eventually see Labour having to refund the $30,000 mispent on this bus trip.