There is something very disturbing about the consensus between the media and the National Party, currently reflected in public opinion polls, that maliciously (and incorrectly) accuses political parties including Labour of wrongly using parliamentary funds in promoting their policies during the last election.
The casual implication is one of corruption. This needs to be met head on and rejected for what it is: a smear and a lie, and a dangerous one. Bear with me because this is a slightly long post. I’ll do a separate post later in the week on the alleged breach of the spending limits by parties.
Let’s recap. Parliament appropriates a sum of money every year for parliamentary political parties to promote their policies. Those funds are administered by the Parliamentary Service, which establishes the rules for the use of the funds, checks off proposed spending against the rules, and makes the relevant payments for promotion.
The funds are there to promote policies. The rules have always been clear and have not changed. The publications must promote policy. They cannot solicit money, membership or votes. This is read in a literal way. One could mount an argument that any mention of a policy is soliciting votes, so the rule has been a literal one. You cannot use parliamentary service funding to say “Vote ACT.” You can use it to say “ACT will cut your taxes if it leads the government.”
In 1999, 2002 and 2005, Labour used this funding to pay for a pledge card, outlining the policies it would implement in government if it was elected to office. The pledge card does not solicit money, membership or votes. The Parliamentary Service saw the card in advance, and it paid for it. It did this three times in a row over a period of six years.
Those who wish to claim that the spending was inappropriate therefore need first to direct questions to the Parliamentary Service. If the use of the funds was not appropriate, why did Parliamentary Service not say so? Why did Parliamentary Service not warn any of the parties that they were proposing to spend money wrongly? Why did Parliamentary Service not withhold the payments and tell parties to pay the bills themselves?
Unless one believes there is some kind of conspiracy to break the law between the Parliamentary Service and the leaderships of ACT, New Zealand First, United Future and Labour, then clearly a different conclusion is the tenable one: Parliamentary Service made the payments, didn’t raise concerns and didn’t ask parties to pay for the material because it fell within the rules.
Now, the only basis that anyone has to question my outline as above is reports of a draft Auditor General’s report into the use of this funding in the first three months of the 2005/06 year. This apparently contains an opinion from the Acting Solicitor General that holds that the use of this parliamentary service funding to promote policies is illegal.
That is very strange. The funds were appropriated by Parliament to promote policies, among the other purposes to which such funds can be put. They were used to promote policies. Parliamentary Service raised no concerns with the way this was done, and saw the use as in line with the rules established for such spending.
How can anyone then think that the use of the funds, for the purpose they were designed, could possibly be illegal?
The next interesting point will be the release of the Auditor General’s final report. The AG will consider the submissions of the parties to his draft report, and the accuracy and relevance of the reported opinion of the Acting Solicitor General. He will need to make recommendations of whatever sort he sees fit to straighten this issue up.
One thing that has been raised is validating legislation. Such legislation happens all the time where concerns arise that appropriations have been used not precisely as per the letter of the Estimates.
So far however we’ve been dealing with the facts. One has to inject the politics. Whatever the Auditor General recommends, I suspect it will be very difficult to promulgate and pass such a law. The lies that are being peddled in comments on the blogs (and by some posters, who should know better) make that clear.
The way the media and the National Party have constructed this story, the parties are in the wrong and should pay the money back. In fact, this is not true. The parties have done nothing wrong and there is no mechanism for them to pay the money back. It will be a cold day in hell before that happens.
My personal view is that if the Auditor General finds, for instance, that the Parliamentary Service has been misunderstanding the rules and that the appropriation has been used in an incorrect way, and then recommends validating legislation, the government should refuse to do so.
While this is a far from acceptable position in oh so many ways, it is absolutely unacceptable politically to give any more credence to the lies of the media and the Opposition by taking a perfectly rational step that can be made to look like something it is not.
A legally imperfect solution is the only way to go unless all political parties would buy into such legislation – and I can guess the chances of that happening.
The way this story has been portrayed – by many of the readers and people who comment here, and by the so-called professional media as well – is simply wrong. Political agendas are being pursued and deserve to be exposed and explored, not swept under the carpet by lazy hacks and malicious bloggers.
It’s not even a case of shooting the messenger. Political media should cover issues like this, but when they do it, they should use their innate ethical ability to put aside the views of politically interested players, and examine the issues in a dispassionate and fact-based way.
Corruption is a dirty word and should be used where it is due. It should not be used wrongly, for political point scoring that ignores the facts of the matter. The media need to stop referring to ‘unlawful’ spending, they need not to print allegations of ‘corruption’ without identifying them as allegations, and they should avoid judging the issues based on a draft report that hasn’t been made public.
Then they might deserve the respect we should all be able to give to the fourth estate. The National Party of course deserves no respect at all.