Five minor parties have joined forces to challenge the big two parties – and the Electoral Commission – about their low allocation of public funding for election broadcasts. Alex Braae reports.
A coalition of minor parties has emerged to challenge the allocation of public funding for election broadcasts, the majority of which has been locked up by Labour and National.
Out of just over $4 million, the two party duopoly has claimed $2.5 million, leaving the rest to be fought over by the rest of the field.
Social Credit, the Māori Party, New Conservative, the Outdoors Party, and the Aotearoa Legalise Cannabis Party have found perhaps the one issue all of them agree on – that small parties are not treated fairly in the allocation. They want an urgent law changed passed so that all parties who stood seven or more candidates at the last election get an equal share of the broadcasting allocation.
On the current figures, the Māori Party will get $145,101, New Conservative and ALCP will get $62,186 each, and Social Credit and the Outdoors Party will get $51,821 each.
Parties aren’t allowed to spend their own money on broadcast advertising (TV and radio) during the election campaign period, and so the allocation of public money is effectively the sum total of what parties can spend on this form of campaigning. They are free to use their own money for other purposes, such as putting up billboards or hiring staff.
When the allocation was announced, the Electoral Commission also released the factors that had gone into it. In short, it is based on votes in the last general election, by-elections held throughout the last term, the number of MPs currently in parliament, relationships between parties, membership numbers, and other means of determining public support, like opinion polling.
But some of the coalition of parties say their history hasn’t been taken into account. “Hell no, they are still marginalising us and other small parties,” said ALCP leader Maki Herbert, who says the paltry figures are nothing new.
“It’s always disappointing for us to not have the media exposure, particularly after the length of time we’ve been in the game. It’s very frustrating.”
The ALCP has existed since 1996, and in that time contested every single general election and by-election. They generally secure around half a percent of the total vote.
The combined press release criticised the criteria used by the Electoral Commission, describing it as “a joke”. Taking aim at Labour and National specifically, the release said “this confers on them a massive advantage to be able to retain the dominant position they already have in New Zealand’s political landscape”.
Social Credit leader Chris Leitch said the allocation didn’t reflect the Electoral Commission’s role of giving parties a fair opportunity to get their policies out to the public.
“If you’re not in parliament, you basically don’t get a look-in. And it means for parties like us that have been around for a very long time – that’s not one of the criteria that is taken into consideration by the committee that allocates the funds.”
He said it made “an immense difference” to how strongly parties could campaign for votes, and that “the allocation that is given of public money determines how much coverage any party is going to get.”
Social Credit has also been around for decades, and for much of the 20th century were the main third party in New Zealand politics, during a period of even stronger duopolistic dominance by Labour and National.
The coalition of parties is also arguing that the major parties have far more access to private fundraising, and as such don’t need the same public allocation. Their release quoted Massey University political scientist Claire Robinson, who wrote in her book Promises Promises that “not only do National and Labour gift themselves a war chest from public funds but they also have substantial sums donated by big business and wealthy individuals”.
The release also criticised major parties having access to other sources of public funding, particularly through Parliamentary Services.
The Opportunities Party, who will receive $145,101, declined to join the coalition, even though they face similar issues. Leader Geoff Simmons said there are “big issues” with how small parties outside of parliament are treated. “The game is rigged in favour of the incumbents and we are calling for a Royal Commission into all these issues, including funding and the 5% threshold.”
However, he said the party was more focused on fighting the election right now.
Under MMP, a party has to either cross the 5% threshold, or win and electorate seat, to gain representation in parliament. That has led to some unusual outcomes, like the Conservative Party and Internet Mana winning far more party votes than United Future or Act in 2014, but not ending up with any seats.
In a response to the minor parties’ campaign, the Electoral Commission said it had followed the statutory criteria set out by the Broadcasting Act.
“Cancelling the determination and urgently revisiting the criteria would require legislative change and would be matters for parliament to consider,” said a spokesperson.