Electoral panel cover for Labour agenda

The electoral panel Labour appointed last week and the consultation process it is to oversee looks like it is open and transparent but it is merely cover for its long held and self-interested agenda to introduce public funding for political parties.

John Armstrong says that while Labour has made no secret of its desire for the tax payer to fund political parties it is also aware it would suffer a public backlash if it tried to introduce it.

Finally, it has put its foot in the water, carefully making any introduction subject first to a major and (for New Zealand) unique public consultation exercise.

On the face of it, Labour would seem to deserve a small bouquet for this exercise. A panel of experts comprised of an electoral law specialist and two political scientists will report back to Parliament after a 70-strong representative “citizens’ forum” – the selection method has still to be worked out – has discussed possible options for changing existing ways of funding parties, including state funding.

But Labour is basically doing it this way to cover itself and therefore more out of political necessity than out of any generosity to critics of state funding. Labour also deserves a large brickbat. As it did in formulating the Electoral Finance Act, it has shut other political parties – principally National – out of the process by which it decided to set up the public consultation exercise.

Not a pretty picture is it? Acting out of political necessity, from self interest and without consultation.

National is miffed that Labour is getting away with giving the appearance of consultation while having again broken the convention that there be multi-party consensus on changes to electoral practises and electoral law.

That convention has been breached by National in the past. But that is no excuse for Labour continuing to do the same thing.

Changes to electoral practices and electoral law should have the widest possible buy-in from political parties in Parliament. Consensus is important both to buttress the credibility of the electoral system against undue criticism and to avoid constant chopping and changing to parts of it.

Constitutional matters are too important to be captured by party political interests. Stability and contancy require cross party and public support.

National argues financially-stretched Labour, in getting state funding on to the agenda, is simply putting its self-interest ahead of the public interest. More so because the panel’s review will not include existing taxpayer funding that parties get for their MPs through Parliamentary Services.

Labour, however, is punting that once state funding is in place, it will be difficult for National to dump it because it too will be a big beneficiary of the taxpayer-funded largesse.

All the more reason for National to stick to its principles and oppose state funding to ensure it isn’t introduced.

Friday’s announcement establishing the panel of experts shows some political cunning from Labour.

National might want to make state funding an election issue, but Labour will urge that such a recommendation will be for the panel to make.

That will be lost on many voters. It will be much easier for National to sell its opposition to state funding than for Labour to explain it’s leaving it to yet another committee.

National counters such a recommendation for state funding is likely because the chairman, Otago University’s Andrew Geddis, has previously expressed enthusiasm for the idea. That is a warning shot across Geddis’s bows that National will be watching the panel’s work closely.

Labour has also been clever in making the panel produce its final report by the end of October next year.

That not only helps take the issue out of the coming election campaign. It will make it easier to legislate the necessary law change introducing state funding in time for the 2011 election – presuming Labour is still in a position to do so.

National has everything to gain by making sure it is an election issue because it can argue that a vote for Labour is a vote for tax payer funding of political parties.

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