Let’s Talk About Taxpayer Funded Elections

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said last week that she is open to having a debate on taxpayer funding for political parties. And that she personally would “like a scenario where political parties did not have to fundraise.”

We say, “bring it on.” Our current election funding system is an affront to democracy. It allows wealthy individuals, businesses, and interest groups to put undue pressure on existing political parties by way of large donations. And as we have seen in the past two elections, only the very wealthy are in a position to form new political parties and seriously contest the election.

Campaigns can be run on personalities and attacks on the opposition candidates without policy getting so much as a look in.

The environment is laid to waste. Air miles are clocked up with abandon, plastic corflute billboards containing little more than artfully airbrushed photos of aspiring MPs litter the landscape. Matching flyers pop up in our letterboxes with monotonous regularity.

The worst of it is that the taxpayer already covers a large proportion of the bill. The taxpayer funds opening and closing television and radio addresses for all parties. The taxpayer funds mail-outs from the electoral commission with lists of candidates standing for elections. Sitting MPs are paid during the campaign, much of their travel is paid for, many of the flyers are paid for, and their electorate offices that manage the campaigns are paid for.

The question is not so much whether elections should be publicly funded, but what form that funding should take, and whether or not additional donations from individuals and organizations should be banned. We believe they should be.

In our opinion, the real debate needs to be around what sort of election campaigns the people of New Zealand want to see and how much they think is an appropriate amount of taxpayers’ money to spend.

Things could carry on pretty much as usual with the taxpayer simply handing over the maximum amount of funding allocated to each political party by the electoral commission for the party to do what they like with – on the proviso that no extra funding in money or kind is allowed, other than voluntary labour on an individual basis.

We could adopt a level playing field model that sees each party allocated a certain amount of funding for each electorate and list candidate fielded regardless of the party’s past performance. This could cost as little or as much as taxpayers feel is necessary.

Or we could go further. We could adopt an environmentally-friendly no-frills approach that focuses on informing voters about policies rather than personalities. We could rely on the electoral commission sending out policy manifestos of each party along with the list of candidates, and funding opening and closing addresses for each party that could be shared on social media as well as radio and television. And encouraging local groups to hold public meet-the-candidate meetings around the country. All other promotional material could be banned except for personal approaches to voters e.g. doorknocking, street meetings, etc, news media coverage, and perhaps recycled signage hand-painted by volunteers from materials that are considered waste such as used corflutes from previous election campaigns or advertising.

Costs aside, political parties concerned about reducing waste and our carbon footprint should lead by example by making reducing and reusing an integral part of their campaign.

If we were feeling particularly curmudgeonly, we could ban MPs from using their travel allowances during the official election period after the house rises, and allow a modest flat travel allowance for each party leader from a party fielding a list of more than, for example, 15 candidates.

These are just some suggestions. Hopefully others will have more ideas. It is an important issue and now is the time to start talking about it.

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