Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Election Spending


In the run-up to the local elections there's a lot of advertising being done with public money. The Auckland Energy Consumer Trust that owns 75% of the shares in the power company Vector recently declared a dividend of $320 per household in the region. Letters informing householders arrived in the same post as the local election ballot papers. Full-page advertisements appeared too. And bill boards. We are invited to believe it was a coincidence that several names on the dividend slip just happened to be standing in council elections. It happened last year, too, when the AECT's own elections were underway. Another example has occurred with the left-wing Auckland City Council. The daily and suburban papers have all carried significant display ads in the guise of public information. They carry the council's logo, and remind readers about how it is "getting on with road improvements". Any inconveniences caused are part of the forward momentum. The costs of such carefully-timed advertising are borne by the organizations concerned and don't need to be declared by individual candidates or their groups. Of course, the ads give a head start to sitting members and are akin to mood music designed to soothe nerves. In Auckland City they have been sorely frayed by the most spendthrift mayor and council in half a century.

The ads say nothing about budgets. No mention of rates rises of 32% over the last three years with another 37% planned for the next triennium. Nor do they explain how the cost of upgrading Auckland's Queen Street has blown out by $20 million over the original budget, or how beaches will be polluted for several more years because councillors' pet projects have gobbled up the funds. No, the ads are just electoral flim-flam, designed to convey to everyone that the council is in good hands, and deserves re-election.

Publicly paid campaigning isn't just a local phenomenon. It's increasingly common at central government level. Watch the advertisements on prime-time TV and note how many have been funded from the public purse. Driver and swimming safety campaigns; breast screening; Tana Umunga's ads with kids; anti-violence campaigns; information about doctors' lower fees thanks to a caring government. Many are worthy causes. But if you conclude that the government really cares about social issues, then their intended con job worked.

Occasionally it is essential to advertise some new government scheme. I recall the introduction of Family Care in 1984, an early targeted income supplement for lower-income workers. Due to the poor data bases in those days, people had to apply for the money. But the recent mood music for the Accident Compensation Corporation, a state monopoly, couldn't be justified. And it's not even clear what recent advertising by the Post Office is all about. Public relations agencies always keep close to governments. They are dab hands at feeding ideas to ministers for expensive campaigns paid for by the taxpayers, and creamed by themselves. The current government's looseness with the purse strings is legendary, and we can expect even more blatant advertising as the general election approaches.

Ironically, these are the same ministers who claim to be so worried about private election advertising that they have introduced the Electoral Finance Bill. That legislation places no restrictions on government advertising. It's private individuals and organizations wanting to get their views across who are in the gun. As the Law Society said recently of the Bill, "the rules regarding registration, disclosure, spending limits, and related offences are so complex, vague and uncertain as to make participation in our parliamentary democracy a difficult undertaking". As the Bill stands, it seems highly likely that many expressions of opinion that have always occurred at election time will now break the law.

Why has Labour that over-spent public funds by more than $800,000 in the 2005 election become so touchy about private campaign spending? We are invited to believe it's because the Exclusive Brethren spent $560,000 on their public information campaign. The Brethren's problem is they are religious. They oppose Labour, and their public faces were all male. These are three serious counts against them in the eyes of this government. Strange, surely, that everyone else has to suffer because of Helen Clark's demons?

Current laws place spending limits on personal and party advertising at both the local and central levels. They have stood the test of time. If applied, they would even have caught the Exclusive Brethren last time for failing to carry adequate authorization for their leaflets. It's taxpayers' funds spent on mood music that is a greater threat to the electoral process. No existing or proposed laws cover that. Our ministers, these days, thrive on double standards.