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Fighting for cleaner and fairer elections

In the end, we need to raise our ambitions for democratic reform, and to fight for a Royal Commission of inquiry into how to make our democracy cleaner and fairer.
Dr Bryce Edwards
Contributing Writer, Democracy Project
September 16th, 2022

OPINION: From this week the public can provide input into the Government’s review of electoral laws – a process which is supposed to make elections cleaner and fairer. Hopefully, public submissions and pressure applied to both the electoral review experts and the Government will force the consideration and implementation of progressive reforms.

The Independent Electoral Review now has a website, a consultation paper, and a way to provide feedback on what needs to change. To have your say, go to: https://electoralreview.govt.nz

Pressure for reforms vs complacency

The independent review is part of a wider agenda by the Labour Government to reform electoral rules. Labour is under great pressure to clean up elections and make them fairer. This is particularly the case with regard to political finance – the ways in which politicians and parties raise money and spend it on campaigning.

We’ve had many years of financial scandals involving all the parties in Parliament, and many outside as well. The major parties are the most vulnerable to allegations of corruption and a lack of integrity in how they fundraise.

Representatives of Labour and National have been in the dock for the last few months at Auckland’s High Court, having to defend how parties and individuals fundraise from the wealthy. Many of the key individuals still have name suppression, but there’s been a lot of detail to show that massive change is needed to clean up our electoral process.

This also comes after the recent NZ First Foundation High Court trial, which the Serious Fraud Office failed to get a conviction on but is now appealing. That court case showed the extent to which the current system has serious loopholes that prevent adequate regulation of political donations. It also illustrated the danger of just assuming our current system works when, in fact, large amounts of money seem to shift between wealthy individuals and parties without detection.

In this country we have a serious problem with complacency in politics – resting on our supposed laurels of being the least corrupt country on earth, and pretending the wealthy don’t have an undue influence on decision-making.

A “scattergun” approach to reform

The label of “tinkering” has been applied by critics to the Government’s political donations reform processes, due to Labour’s apparent lack of appetite for thorough reform.

It’s also a major problem that the reform process designed by Labour has been rather messy, opaque and not well-thought-out. Much of the design was down to the former Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi, who clearly didn’t have much enthusiasm for his portfolio and the necessary reforms.

The jury is still out on whether his replacement, Kiritapu Allan, might be more enthusiastic, transparent and competent. So far not much has changed, and Labour is still refusing to release its own submission to the Ministry of Justice about how it wants electoral laws changed.

The latest phase of Labour’s electoral reform is particularly scattergun. The Government announced an “Independent Review Panel” in May, and gave it some almost-random areas of electoral law to consider. It also directed the panel not to look at various parts of the electoral process. This scattergun approach, in which it looks at some parts of elections and democracy and not others, has made the process rather constrained.

The main issues the panel are looking at, and now consulting on, are: whether to lower the voting age, if a four-year Parliamentary term should be introduced, if the 5% MMP threshold should be lowered, and whether party donation regulations should be reformed. Other aspects of electoral law are also being considered, but much of this will remain either uncontentious or obscure.

The hope is that the review panel will take a keen interest in political finance, and come up with stronger rules than we currently have, to make the system of elections fairer and the democratic process safer from the undue influence of vested interests.

But this will depend on public pressure. Looking at the consultation document, and the questions that the panel want the public to focus on, many of the most important political finance issues have been sidelined.

For example, “cash for access” fundraising isn’t being examined. This has been one of the biggest areas of concern for the public in recent years. Under Prime Minister John Key, the last National Government ran “Cabinet clubs” in which wealthy businesspeople could pay large sums of money to attend networking meetings with ministers.

This has continued under Labour, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her ministers charging for access to meetings where they brief businesspeople on their reform programme and get to hear the concerns and priorities of wealthy individuals. Despite pressure for the electoral review panel to investigate this, it appears to be off the table so far, as is scrutiny of other political finance issues that might be unwelcome to the parties in Parliament. Note, for example, that the use of Labour’s fundraising art auctions – at the centre of the recent High Court trial – has also been left off the table by the independent panel.

Will the politicians accept the independent review’s recommendations?

The last time a similar review of elections was held – by the Electoral Commission in 2012 – the then National Government threw the recommendations in the bin. Labour accused National as acting out of self-interest. The boot is now on the other foot, and Labour is emulating National in not committing itself to implementing the recommendations of the review.

This is always the danger of this type of exercise. When the panel provides its reform proposals – just after next year’s election – the Government is likely to pick and choose what it wants to implement. Self-interest will likely be the leading criteria for whatever parties are in power.

As the NBR’s political editor Brent Edwards writes today, “the political parties, as always, will have an influential role in implementing – or not – the recommendations which emerge from the review.” He asks: “once the review reports back will the politicians listen? Or will they, as National did in 2012, quietly shelve the report?”

A Royal Commission would be better

The current reviews and reform agenda are too ill-thought-through, scattergun, and compromised. The danger, however, is that the politicians will be able to pretend that the current review is sufficient, therefore fending off public demands for something more thorough and transformational.

There are so many different areas of our democracy that need more than the “once over lightly” approach we are currently seeing. In the end, we need to raise our ambitions for democratic reform, and to fight for a Royal Commission of inquiry into how to make our democracy cleaner and fairer.

Eventually, a more serious reform effort will surely be demanded by the public. Democracy deserves it.

Article originally published on Democracy Project and republished to The Platform with permission.

Bryce Edwards is a senior associate at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies and lecturer at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand.