Justice Minister a danger to democracyMatthew Hooton from the Sunday Star Times says that Justice Minister Mark Burton is a danger to democracy and should be sacked. He is trying to push through his Electoral Finance bill.
The legislation -developed in secret by Justice Minister Mark Burton under the guidance of Labour's election strategist Pete Hodgson - does nothing to stop a repeat of the 2005 pledge card rort or the anonymous donations and secret trusts that Helen Clark once said were so undemocratic. She's now decided she needs them.
Nor is the legislation about pamphlets that spread malicious gossip about our politicians, or those saying "Vote National", "Vote Labour" or "Don't Vote Green". Nor even is it about dodgy pamphlets that hide the identity of their publisher. Our existing law deals with all these issues, if only our police would enforce it.
Burton's legislation is far broader. It restricts almost every expression of opinion, on any topic about which a politician has stated a view, by people who declare who they are, where they live, how much they're spending and who is funding them.
Plunket would be caught if it published a pamphlet saying "Politicians Need To Act On Child Abuse", or even "Child Abuse Is Wrong". Press statements saying "National Does U-Turn" or "Labour Attacks Free Speech" would also be regulated by the state, as would placards at protest marches.
The legislation also goes well beyond the traditional three months of an election campaign. From New Year's Day to mid-November - 10 1/2 months - it would be illegal for anyone other than the government to spend more than $60,000 talking to the public about a policy issue.
Sixty thousand dollars may sound like a lot - it's the income at which Michael Cullen says we're rich - but it buys almost nothing in terms of mass communication.
Run just two full-page advertisements in section A of this newspaper, saying "Cut Taxes", and Labour's legislation would send you to jail.
Television advertising is out of the question, as is anything significant on radio. It might just be possible to dump a million mass-produced brochures in letterboxes - a la the Exclusive Brethren - but it would not be possible for a group to post a sensible, serious letter to everyone in the Bay of Plenty.
Burton has set the threshold so low not because he thinks it is fair, but precisely because he knows it is not enough for Labour's critics to get their message across to the public.
In the 12 months leading up to election 2005, the government spent $12 million - a million dollars a month - to remind us to check if we were eligible for Working for Families handouts. A group wanting to criticise Working for Families - disclosing exactly who they are -would now be restricted to just $6000 a month in election year.
There is not just a cap on spending. Burton's legislation sets a threshold above which groups must first register with the state before saying anything.
At an electorate level, the limit is $500. Buy more than 10 rolls of 50c stamps, with the intention of sending a letter to Wigram or Epsom voters about something on which Jim Anderton or Rodney Hide has expressed an opinion, and you will need to register with the state. Don't expect to keep your job in the public service if you do. But, if you don't register, the police will be able to enter your home to search for the stamps.
The most honest defence of Burton's plans has come from my colleague Chris Trotter. In another paper, he says the proposals are "pay-back for National's ferocious `pledge card' campaign". National forced Labour to repay the $824,524 it stole from the taxpayer, and Trotter argues Burton's legislation is the consequence. Trotter says the bill exempts Greenpeace, the unions and Forest & Bird from the spending limits - which, he says approvingly, will keep the Left in play while hampering the Right.
It's not clear whether our justice minister has a predilection for jackboots or is just incompetent and doesn't understand his own legislation. Either way, he's a danger to our democracy. His bill should be binned and he should be sacked.