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PoliticsSeptember 8, 2020

The batshit rules that exclude us from TV debates are an insult to democracy

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TVNZ has changed its rules for participation in the multi-party debate with new criteria that are arbitrary and unfair, writes Geoff Simmons, leader of The Opportunities Party.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly suggested that Newshub had also changed its criteria and that the Advance Party would participate in its multi-party debate. We apologise for the error.

News emerged this morning that TVNZ has changed its criteria for the minor leader debate. The “technical change” reportedly means that it now welcomes “leaders of registered parties where the leader has been an MP, or party has been represented, in either/both of the past two parliaments.””

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m super glad the Māori Party is being included in the debate. TOP even started a petition calling for their (and our) inclusion in the debates. This petition now has over 6,000 signatures. They got in, which is awesome. We didn’t.

Let’s be honest. TVNZ is chopping and changing criteria to suit themselves. Handpicking who it think the winners should be, leaving credibility and objectivity is in tatters. It makes a mockery of the democratic process.

Since MMP was introduced, no party that was started outside parliament has ever made it in. Despite having a ton of really well through policy initiatives, we have to work so much harder, unreasonably hard, than those in parliament to get heard. How do new ideas flourish in this system? I think we can all agree we need new ideas now more than ever given the mess we are in.

But how can parties outside parliament have any chance when there are such barriers to getting in? And why are the media themselves adding to these barriers by introducing such arbitrary criteria? Quite clearly they are making shit up as they go along.

Making shit up as they go

Again, let me emphasise: I’m glad the Māori Party are in the debate.

But these criteria are arbitrary as hell. A good example is Advance NZ. Jami-Lee Ross was just another has-been National MP who was going to get kicked out of parliament at the next election. By declaring himself leader of a party and teaming up with the NZ Public Party he has given a platform to a bunch of whack-jobs. That’s right, the tinfoil hat anti-vaxx brigade now has a platform on TVNZ.

TOP could have been at the debate, too, simply by welcoming Jami-Lee Ross into the fold. And he did approach us some months ago. But that would have involved getting into bed with someone who is before the courts on serious fraud charges, as well as facing multiple complaints of bullying and sexual harassment. No thanks. There is no vaccine for that sort of virus.

So yeah, TOP could have been at the debate instead of the New Zealand Public Party based on this batshit criteria. We still could, if the likes of Peter Dunne or retiring National MP (and UBI stan) Alastair Scott magically became co-leader of TOP. How random would that be?

There has to be a better way. And there is one. Can we offer a better way?

A Better Way

The law places responsibility on the gatekeeping/refereeing of our democracy to our independent Electoral Commission. They decide which parties meet the criteria to be registered and legal, and which are legitimate enough to receive significant public funding.

The purpose of the Electoral Commission is to administer our electoral system “to provide an effective and impartial electoral system that New Zealanders understand and trust”.

Part of that role requires the Electoral Commission to determine how much funding different parties should receive to broadcast their message to the public. This independent assessment carried out by the country’s actual electoral referee should carry far more weight – and the media have a duty to respect that assessment.

In this case, the commission ranked TOP in Category 4. That is the same category as ACT and the Māori Party. There is no justification for treating us differently to them, and thereby giving more broadcast time to other parties in the same category. The TVNZ decision undermines the intention of the law – that is, to give the commission oversight over broadcast time – not the media.

The TVNZ criteria mean that they are providing a significantly louder voice to two parties who were given the same level of broadcast funding as TOP – even though that classification signals that the Electoral Commission has determined we should be treated equally.

It also means that TVNZ is giving a far greater platform to one party that was ranked at Category 5 – below TOP – by the independent Electoral Commission process.

In making its judgement the Electoral Commission looks at a range of factors in addition to current polling and having MPs in parliament. It considers the 2017 vote, in which TOP received 2.4% of the vote, compared with Act’s 0.5% and the Māori Party’s 1.2%.  They also look at membership (TOP has almost 2,000) and donations (TOP received more donations in 2019 than all other political parties combined at an average value of $25).

TVNZ could have used the commission’s ruling, which would, I think, have refused a platform to a pretty dangerous political movement. But they chose not to. Why not? I guess because a little bit of unhinged makes for good TV.

All the TVNZ new criteria do is double-down on the incumbent advantage the law already provides. In a free and fair democracy, challengers need to be given a voice – and criteria that tie that voice to previous political power is simply a recycling of power that has either previously been voted out by the people (Māori Party) or the only voice they have already been hearing for the last three years. It’s absurd.

However you look at this, excluding TOP from the TV debates, is nothing more than silencing a challenger trying to hold power to account. That is the antithesis of a free and fair democracy – or a free, impartial and fair media for that matter.

Keep going!