I know, I know right? Two sidetracks in a week. I’m getting bad at this. But this one is really important. It highlights why laws like the EFA are necessary.
Despite believing passionately in free speech rights, I’m a staunch supporter of the electoral finance act, which includes limits on the amount spent on advertising by political parties, and more importantly, limits the amount of parallel campaigning, (where say, rogue members of the exclusive brethren will launch attacks on another political party so that National doesn’t have to) whether positive or negative, that any third party groups can do during the election season. Some people see this as a contradiction. I don’t.
The really important part of this law is that it prevents third parties from spending very large amounts of money to attack or back a particular political party outside of the usual spending limits, thus effectively opening up a loophole and making the election less of a competition of beliefs and policies, and more of a matter of buying your way into power with as much advertising as possible.
National, the party that benefited from this sort of parallel campaigning last election, is calling the Electoral Finance Act an assault on free speech. Apparently, National don’t understand what free speech is. Free Speech is most fundamentally the right to air your political views without punishment, threats, or detainment by the government. We also understand it as the right not to be prevented from presenting those views in public. However, the type of speech being limited (not banned) is not political views. It is electioneering. Under the electoral finance act, you are perfectly welcome to say “we at the Business Roundtable think it is important that the government collect as little tax as possible”. You just can’t say “So vote for the National Party”, or even “so don’t vote for the Labour Party”1. Given that those sorts of statements have no explicit political message in them, I think there’s little reason to protect them in the first place.
Interestingly, the Obama campaign has just made a very similar move in the USA. In the US, Presidential candidates are able to sign up for federal funding of their campaigns on the understanding that they will abide by federal spending limits. Not only has Obama’s opponent, John McCain, already broken the law by exceeding those limits for his primary campaign, but he is also very likely to benefit from nominally independent groups that will run attack advertising on Obama using money raised by the Republican Party.
So, Obama knows that he can make a lot more money than the federal funding will allow him to spend, even though he supports that funding system. He knows that playing within the rules just gives McCain the advantage, especially as he’s demonstrated that he’s prepared to break them outright, and not just bend them as the Republicans usually do. So Obama has opted out of the public financing scheme, saying that it needs to be improved so that it’s not vulnerable to exactly the sort of parallel campaigning that laws like the EFA prevent.
Typically, McCain is following a similar line to National’s attacks on this matter- he’s portraying it as a cynical attempt to have more campaign finance available. And while it’s true in both cases- Obama’s pullout and Labour’s support of the EFA- that there is some self-interest involved, the public still gets to benefit from a far more level playing field come the election, which is something we can all agree is worthwhile.
1Edited to add: Well, you can’t say that without being subject to spending limits, registration as an official third party, submitting a known and inhabited residential address for verification, and a bunch of other things that basically just ensure you’re a real person/organisation and that you’re okay with not trying to saturate the country with advertising, but rather just want to show a small amount of support for your favoured Party or candidate. Even electioneering is technically protected like normal free speech, it’s just that you can’t spend too much money on it. You are however welcome to doorknock, attend debates, etc… which has the effect of making a good campaign involve really getting to know the voters a lot more personally than before. That can only be a good thing for the country as a whole.