What counts as a party member?

Political parties in New Zealand need only 500 members to be registered and to be eligible for broadcasting money.

But as The Nation discussed yesterday,  parties aren’t required to provide any actual proof that they have the numbers and exactly what constitutes a member varies between parties.

Act, NZ First and Maori Party wouldn’t give their membership numbers. National said it had close to 30, 000; Labour claimed 56,000 but wouldn’t give a figure that didn’t include union affiliates.

The Green Party said it had 4700 members, Mana claimed 2500 and Untied Future said it has 550 members.

But what does member mean and how do we know the count is accurate?

Each April a party secretary has to sign a declaration to the Electoral Commission confirming the party has at least 500 members but no check is made and there is no strict definition of exactly what constitutes a member.

Under MMP parties have a lot of power, they also receive taxpayers money for broadcasting.

Leaving it up to parties to define what constitutes a member and have no check on their numbers is unacceptable.

We need  a definition for paid up individual members. That is the only number which should count for the 500 threshold as distinct from others the parties might now use which could include supporters, those who are lumped in as union affiliates or are on a party data base because for example, they attended a meeting or receive emails.

We also need a proper mechanism for checking the accuracy of the number declared.

That does not mean that members’ names should be made public. There are all sorts of reasons that people might not want others to know they belong to a political party.

But parties could be required to supply membership lists in confidence to the Electoral Commission and/or undergo an audit of their membership.

In the interests of fully informing voters and taxpayers, the number of members should also be public.

The 500 member threshold is a very low hurdle for an organisation which receives public funds and has the potential to wield a lot of power.

It shouldn’t be too much to know how many members parties really have.  At the very least we need to know that membership counts are consistent and accurate.

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4 Responses to What counts as a party member?

  1. pdm says:

    I pay a sub to be a member of my Bowling Club – it gives me playing and voting rights.

    Surely the same broad principles must apply to Political Parties irrespective of whether the sub is $1 or $100.

  2. homepaddock says:

    You’d think it would – especially as a sub attracts GST as distinct from a donation which doesn’t.

  3. “But what does member mean and how do we know the count is accurate?”

    Well, the Electoral Act does define a “current financial member” (of which parties must have (and continue to have) at least 500 of if they are to get (and remain) registered) as being:

    “in relation to a political party, means a member of the party—

    (a) whose membership of the party resulted from an application made by the member to join the party; and

    (b) who is, under the party’s rules, subject to an obligation to pay to the party a membership fee—

    (i) on becoming a member; and

    (ii) then at specified intervals of not more than 3 years; and

    (c) who has paid to the party every membership fee that has for the time being become payable by the member in accordance with those rules.”

    So it isn’t strictly true that parties can define membership in any way they want.

    In regards checking to see whether the membership numbers that the party reports to the Commission are accurate, the Act requires that:

    “The Electoral Commission shall refuse an application for the registration of a political party if—

    (b) if it is satisfied that the party does not have 500 current financial members who are eligible to enrol as electors.”

    As well as:

    “The Electoral Commission shall cancel the registration of any political party on being satisfied that the number of current financial members of the party who are eligible to enrol as electors has fallen below 500.”

    So if the Commission suspects that a party doesn’t have the requisite numbers, it could demand from a party some evidence of its membership. And if the party doesn’t supply this, the Commission could refuse to register/cancel the registration. Which means that the problem might be with the Commission failing to use the powers that it has, rather than an absence of legal rules.

  4. homepaddock says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Andrew.

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