Myths around election spending

LIAM HEHIR
Last updated 12:00 21/07/2014

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Last week I shared a car with a long-time Left-wing activist and now an Internet Party member. She was excited about finally being involved in a cause with deep pockets. I can see why she felt that way, because the conventional wisdom is that money and election results are strongly linked.

The theory goes that ordinary voters are basically idiots. Send them a brochure or show them a sign and they will be programmed like robots to vote for you. This being so, whoever has the means to buy the most advertising can therefore also buy the election.

There was a real panic about this in the aftermath of the 2005 general election. I remember when my then flatmate Cameron was sorting through the post and came across a pamphlet urging readers to change the government. This material claimed that Labour couldn't be trusted to defend New Zealand and that the Greens were a bunch of extremists.

Other people across the country received the same material, of course, and when news broke about it Labour and the Greens flew into a rage.

Eventually, it came out that the Exclusive Brethren were behind it all. That sect then became a kind of bete noire for the Clark government, which mounted a sustained political campaign against it.

The final form of retribution came in the form of the authoritarian Electoral Finance Act 2007. This law, which passed through Parliament by a whisker on a vote along party lines, severely curtailed the rights of citizens to run effective campaigns about public issues during an election year.

These draconian actions were rationalised on the basis that they were necessary to prevent the well-funded from purchasing election results.

Even then, this was seen as an overreaction fuelled by revenge rather than a level-headed measure to buttress democracy. When our flat received the Exclusive Brethren's material, I took a cursory look at it and then binned it. Media coverage of the campaign had been exhaustive, and against endless newspaper stories and editorials and thousands of hours of television and radio broadcasting on the election, a piece of paper that came in with the junk mail didn't amount to much.

Since then we've seen plenty of further evidence against the idea that the rich can spend their way to power.

Republican Meg Whitman provided a spectacular example of this in 2008. She spent more than $US144 million (NZ$165m) of her own money chasing the California governorship. She was trounced.

In our last general election, the Conservatives spent a whopping $1.8m, which was more than Labour spent. For that expenditure, they received just 2.65 per cent of the vote - which works out to $31.71 a head. Three years later and even more money down the drain, that party is not polling any better.

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Don't get me wrong, money is required to get your message out. What is pretty clear, however, is that diminishing returns set in fairly rapidly. There are lots of studies showing this. The University of Chicago's Steve Levitt - who also co-authored the popular Freakonomics - has observed that: "When a candidate doubled their spending . . . they only got an extra 1 per cent of the popular vote. It's the same if you cut your spending in half, you only lose 1 per cent of the popular vote."

People just aren't the credulous children so many opinion-makers take them for. There are few things harder than changing somebody's mind - it certainly takes much more than posting out a whole lot of pamphlets. It is therefore a real shame that our elites were so quick to abridge our democratic rights to speak out.

National came to power and quickly repealed the Electoral Finance Act. To its credit, a chastened Labour Party did not stand in its way. Unfortunately, however, many of the restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles on third party campaigns were retained.

Greenpeace learned this recently after the Electoral Commission ruled that a website the lobbyists had set up to attack Energy Minister Simon Bridges was subject to electoral law restraints.

The commission also ruled that another campaign Greenpeace is involved in around climate change would also constitute an election advertisement and so was subject to the law. That interpretation is now to be the subject of court proceedings.

I sincerely wish them the best of luck. Ultimately, however, we should look to repeal the offensive provisions through Parliament.

Kim Dotcom could help. He has reportedly given $3m to his party - which is far more than Colin Craig donated to his in 2011. If the Internet Party does no better this year than the Conservatives did then, I think that can only underline the fact that much of the hype about spending in election campaigns is overblown.

- Manawatu Standard

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