Dotcom party ruling sets precedent

TALKING POLITICS BY GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 11:27 23/01/2014

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The Wellingtonian

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OPINION: Legal academics may prefer the black-and-white letter of the law, where everyone's rights and obligations are supposedly crystal clear.

Yet on a daily basis, the system gets by pretty well with various shades of grey.

Our abortion laws, for example, may look conservative on the page, but the system operates fairly liberally in practice, and most of the public (and parliamentarians) seem to prefer it that way.

Similarly, the rules governing how political parties can spend public funds used to be applied fairly loosely, until the Audit Office came along and outlawed a number of practices.

Last week, much the same thing may have occurred when the rules that govern an obscure section of the Electoral Act that defines something called "treating" got dusted off and applied to Kim Dotcom's proposed political party.

Once again, the system may never be quite the same again.

Historically speaking, the rules on "treating" were meant to deter political parties from corruptly offering say, free alcohol to bribe voters to support them.

In Dotcom's case, he was offering free tickets to the joint launch of his new music CD and of his Internet Party political vehicle at the Vector Arena on January 20, a date that coincided with Dotcom's birthday and the two- year anniversary of the police/FBI raid on his Coatesville mansion.

Dotcom was advised that his proposed combined political launch/CD launch would constitute "treating" under section 217 of the Electoral Act, which penalises anyone who "gives or provides, or pays wholly or in part the expense of . . . any food, drink, entertainment for the purpose of corruptly influencing that person or any other person to vote or refrain from voting, or for the purpose of procuring himself or herself to be elected".

As a consequence, Dotcom shelved his political party launch, and proceeded with plans for his birthday party music bash, only to be advised by the Electoral Commission that that, too, could be regarded as an event likely to induce voters to support his political party further down the track.

Reluctantly, Dotcom cancelled all the public celebrations set for his birthday.

Presumably, the rules on "treating" are not being suddenly being invoked simply to make life difficult for Dotcom.

Regardless, every political party and candidate will surely now have to comply with the standard that has been set by the Electoral Commission.

In that case, it is hard to see how the Greens' annual "Picnic For The Planet" differs from the Dotcom "Party Party" bash - it, too, could be construed as encouraging its attendees to look more favourably upon the Green Party.

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Last year, Labour's David Cunliffe announced plans to mobilise the 800,000 non-voters nationwide, many of them residents in south Auckland, for this year's election.

Well, any event fostering democratic participation that Labour stages in south Auckland that involves say, hip hop or dance artists and carries a door price anything less than the full market rate, could now land it in trouble.

Clearly, the Venn diagram overlaps between "treating" and "party-related advertising" and "fund-raising entertainments" could now become a legal minefield for all political parties.

Dotcom has begun to affect the political climate of 2014, well before the election campaign proper.

- The Wellingtonian

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