Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Campaign finance laws are a subversion of democracy

I watched with interest last week as Gareth Morgan's The Opportunities Party took Television New Zealand to court seeking to overturn the network's decision not to invite Morgan to the televised election debate between the leaders of New Zealand's minor parties. I have nothing but contempt for Morgan because of his naive support for the evil North Korean regime (as Liberty Scott blogged about here) and his ill-informed comments on a range of other subjects such as Israel and terrorism. He has what is perhaps the stupidest policy ever to come out of a New Zealand political party, that of taxing non-income earning assets based on a nominal rate of return, which would mean income-poor people such as the elderly would have to sell their homes.

The fact that Morgan is a fool does not mean he shouldn't have the same opportunities to promote his stupid policies as the other political parties, and this raises the issue of the legal constraints on political funding in this country and in much of the Western world. You can be as dumb as Gareth Morgan and still appreciate that the existing major political parties have a vested interest in keeping small parties from promoting their policies. Incumbent governments, particularly those of a left-wing bent (who believe, perhaps falsely, that they are less likely to attract wealthy benefactors), restrict challengers' access to state and private media and impose campaign funding restrictions that benefit themselves.

In New Zealand we have laws limiting and requiring disclosure of campaign contributions, although the authorities here have been reluctant to prosecute breaches, as for example when the incumbent government broke the law in the 2005 Labour Party 'pledge card' case. We also have state funding for campaign advertising on television and other media and this is allocated on the basis of support for the parties at previous elections, which significantly handicaps any new or emergent party. These laws are made worse by the discriminatory treatment of smaller political parties by media organisations such as Television New Zealand (which, incidentally, is state-owned).

The campaign finance laws in America are particularly onerous, as exemplified by the jailing in 2014 of conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza for making an undeclared political donation, and the US Government's attempts to stop organisations contributing to political debate, which was thwarted by Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. The court decided in that case that campaign contributions are a form of political speech and organisations have the same right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment as individuals. The American television networks also treat smaller parties with disdain, which was particularly evident in the US Presidential campaigns with the discriminatory treatment of the Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson and Green Party's Jill Stein.

The argument in favour of political funding laws is that they even out the playing field because otherwise a few rich people could heavily influence an election by buying up huge amounts of advertising in the mainstream media. I think this overvalues the role of the mainstream media in elections, particularly in this day when one Youtube commentator can have more viewers than a television network, and it is patronising of voters, who are far less influenced by media campaigns than people think (witness the fact that Donald Trump won the presidency with a fraction of the television advertising spend of Hillary Clinton).

I think the United States Supreme Court got it right for once - political donations are a form of speech and any impingement of them is a restriction on free speech and on freedom of association. I don't think the state should be limiting or contributing to political promotion and that current campaign finance laws are a subversion of democracy and individual rights. Furthermore, I don't believe anyone should have to publicly disclose political donations because this is a breach of the right to privacy. We have the right to vote in secret and this should extend to the contributions to those for whom we may vote.

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