Campaigning costs money, and issues relating to political finance and its regulation have been of increasing concern in New Zealand. Arguments are made about the unfairness of electoral participants having unequal amounts of money to spend on their campaigns, and the possibility of corruption resulting from donations made to campaigns. For these reasons there are a number of regulations about the use of money in elections.
Bribery has been illegal in elections since 1858. Further restrictions have involved various limits on campaign advertising expenditure. In 1895 a limit on candidate expenditure of £200 was introduced. This was the equivalent of $36,960 in 2014, when the amount allowed per candidate was $25,700.
William Brown, whose fight to be superintendent of Auckland Province in 1853 failed, is said to have spent £3,000 (more than $320,000 in 2010 values) on his campaign. Len Brown, who won the contest to be first mayor of the Auckland ‘super city’ in 2010, spent $390,761. The totals are comparable, but the two Browns spent a very different amount per voter. Len Brown spent 86 cents for each of 455,650 Aucklanders who turned out on the day. William Brown spent more than $184 (in 2010 values) on each of the 1,742 voters who went to the polls in Auckland province.
At the first election using the MMP (mixed-member proportional) system in 1996, spending limits were extended to political parties. In 2008, for example, the two largest parties, Labour and National, had limits of about $2.4 million each. The rules were later changed. In 2011 a political party seeking party and electorate votes was allowed to spend up to $1,065,000, plus $25,000 for each electorate it contested. The major parties had an allocation of $2,815,000 for the three months leading up to the election. Parties that did not contest the party vote were permitted to spend $25,000 per contested electorate.
Resources are also made available by the state for political parties to broadcast their message during the campaign. The Electoral Commission allocates time and money to be spent on television and radio advertisements, and on campaign opening and closing speeches. In 2008, $3.2 million and 102 minutes of television time was allocated to 14 parties – with 60% of the money going to Labour and National. Political parties are not permitted to use their own money to buy additional broadcast advertising.
2005 election controversies
Two major controversies made political finance an issue following the 2005 general election. Members of the Exclusive Brethren church spent a considerable amount of money publishing leaflets that assisted the National Party’s campaign, thus circumventing the limits on expenditure by political parties.
The second issue arose after the election. An investigation by the auditor-general, an independent official, found that all of the parliamentary parties except the Maori Party had unlawfully spent parliamentary funds on their election campaigns. The biggest offender was the governing Labour Party, which, along with the other offending parties, was pressured to pay back the money spent on election advertisements.
Electoral Finance Act 2007
The Labour-led government moved after the election to tighten up the regulation of political finance, with Parliament passing the Electoral Finance Act 2007 (EFA). The government’s stated intention was to prevent the undue influence of money on electoral outcomes, while providing greater transparency and accountability on party and candidate election activity. However, many saw the legislation as stifling freedom of expression and political debate in election years. The EFA was repealed in 2009 with the support of both National and Labour.
In 2010 the National-led government introduced the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment bill, which passed with the support of both major parties. This legislation was the result of a more thorough and consultative policy-making process than the EFA, and proved much less controversial. In addition to changes relating to electoral expenditure, the act gave New Zealanders the option of voting before election day, which many did in 2011 and 2014. In 2017, 47% of all votes were cast before election day, suggesting that the ritual of voting alongside one’s neighbours as a collective expression of citizenship may be becoming redundant.