Commission has 'serious concerns' over donations bill

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009

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Electoral Commission chief executive Helena Catt says she has serious concerns about interpreting the new Electoral Finance Bill.

The New Zealand Law Society (NZLS), while welcoming many of the changes in the rewritten bill, has also said it is concerned by the complexity of the legislation.

Dr Catt said her "No 1" concern with the bill – which was reported back with wide ranging amendments on Monday – was around what activities MPs could engage in and what they couldn't.

Section 80 of the bill sets out the meaning of election expenses for parties. It says parties' election expenses do not include anything done in relation to a member of Parliament doing their job.

"We all need to know what they mean so that we know which activities they need to put in the election expense returns and which they don't," she said.

Dr Catt said it was crucial her organisation understood the law.

"We're the organisation people will want to lay complaints with, we are the ones tasked with the duty to report to police if we think the components of the law are breached," she said.

"We also the ones that are expected to provide guidance on what the bill means along with the Chief Electoral Office."

Dr Catt described the confusion as serious, and said if it resulted in a lot of debate it could further destabilise public trust in the election campaign process.

She said election stories should be about issues, not the campaign process itself.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen said he wanted to see detail from the commission on its concerns.

"There's still time to look at those types of matters," he said.

Dr Catt said she would be "eternally grateful" if flaws could be ironed out through amendments.

Justice Minister Annette King said it was clear that MPs could not use parliamentary spending for electioneering.

Dr Catt said some cases were obvious, for example when MPs were saying "vote for me".

But "a communication saying our policy in this area for the next five years is to do the following," was unclear.

And there were timing issues if the ad ran close to the election.

"There are some other interpretation areas where we will just have to work with the Chief Electoral Office and with the political parties to ensure we have a shared interpretation," she said.

A new component of election activity in the bill is encouraging people to vote for or against a type of party. The definition of party would be up for debate. National deputy leader Bill English told Parliament yesterday that the Government could be seen as a kind of party.

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Dr Catt said under one interpretation that was correct.

"You could have parties of the left, parties of the right, parties that support this proposition parties who don't, parties in Parliament, parties not in Parliament. All of those are examples of types of parties."

NZLS president John Marshall QC said all legislation should be drafted in clear and simple language and that was even more important for law regulating elections.

"As amended this bill now runs to 113 pages and is even more complex than the original."

The society said the bill had changed so much it should be started again or at least go back to the committee for further consideration.

The justice and electoral select committee rejected proposed limits suggested by the commission which Dr Catt said would make its job harder.

They were:

*To set the threshold on anonymous donations between $3000 to $5000 – rather than $1000 – to help reduce the compliance costs;

* For the election year spending limit for interest and advocacy groups to be as much as $300,000 rather than $120,000.

* For the spending threshold before lobby groups had to register as a third party campaigner to be $40,000. It has been set at $12,000.

Dr Catt said this meant the commission had to register a lot of parties; "what we are concerned about is how we can detect them".

Especially during the first year that would be tricky as people may not understand the rules.

Setting a higher spending limit would have meant groups were quite visible and easier for the commission to spot.

"Now at $12,000 it's going to be much much harder for us to keep an eye on all forms of activity – that (figure) could be three adverts in a community paper."

The commission preferred to contact people and inform them of the rules rather than let them inadvertently break the law.

NZPA

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