Not my typical post

Note: this post originally appeared on ‘Douglas to Dancing’, a blog I maintained from 2007-9 on the ACT New Zealand political party. The blog was an extension of the thesis I wrote about the Act Party in 2007, From Douglas to Dancing: explaining the lack of success of ACT New Zealand and evaluating its future prospects (PDF).

I was alerted by one of my parliamentary sources to a minor controversy about an ACT leaflet, specifically, whether it was in breach of the Electoral Finance Act (EFA) 2007. According to a report by Audrey Young in the New Zealand Herald last week:

The commission agreed that the Act booklet Not Your Typical Party was an election advertisement but is not sure it was “published” when it was distributed to journalists at the Act Party conference.
It is seeking legal advice. If it decides that distribution to journalists is publication, then it should have had proper authorisation from the party’s secretary. But if so, it would almost certainly attract only a warning.

It seems Young herself was the catalyst for the Electoral Commission’s ruling, as she had submitted a complaint to the Commission about the booklet, which ACT distributed at its March 2008 conference. The response she received from Helena Catt of the Electoral Commission was posted on Young’s blog on the New Zealand Herald website last week.

The only other coverage I’m aware of the story is a post on Kiwiblog:

ACT’s “Not your typical party” booklet is an election advertisement, but the lack of authorisation may not have broken the law as it is unsure whether distributing to journalists at a party conference counts as publishing it. Again, this suggests the cost of it should be included in their expense return (less of an issue for ACT as unlikely to reach the $2.4 m limit) unless it qualifies for the parliamentary purposes exemption.

On this blog I’ve hitherto stayed away from any EFA-related commentary, not because I don’t think it’s important but because I feel inadequate to comment on it, being a relatively technical piece of legislation. There are others far better to comment on the use and application of the EFA – two names that spring to mind are Bryce Edwards, lecturer at the Department of Politics at the University of Otago and better known in the blogosphere as the author of the “Liberation” blog, and David Farrar, of course of Kiwiblog fame. I’m happy to leave commentary on the details of the EFA to these people and others who are better informed on its many ins and outs. Therefore the aim of this post is to try and shed light on the leaflet controversy, rather than make a final judgment on its legality.

The “Not your typical party” leaftlet is about the size of a standard business envelope, used for sending A4 pages folded in three. To my knowledge it was first put out by ACT in about June 2007, when I was in the midst of writing my dissertation. I’ve since acquired about four copies of the leaflet, either at various ACT-related events or through the post. I’ve also acquired a PDF version of the leaflet which I am making available for download here. I don’t have the printed leaflets with me to compare but I think they are identical – however the devil is very much in the detail as I will mention below.

For a leaflet for which the aim is surely to draw new supporters to the party’s cause, the fact that ACT has been keen to distribute them to members (in effect, preaching to the converted) seems a little out of place. There was one at each attendee’s seat at the Annual Conference in March, despite the fact that members had already been posted one in their conference registration packs. This would seem to me to be a waste of resources – surely doing anything else with them, such as a mail drop, would be more productive than throwing copies to members who are already guaranteed ACT voters.

The only rational reason for giving them to members would be as a recruitment aid for them (i.e. something to show friends and family) but giving out more sizeable quantities on request might be a better way to fulfil this sort of purpose. I suspect most conference delegates took the brochure away with their Waipuna Lodge pad and pen and did nothing further with it. Of course, this may well be because as an unauthorised pamphlet under the EFA, ACT had to get rid of its supplies, but I just am not up with the legislation to give a firm opinion on this – please let me know if you know any better.

But back to the EFA-related issue: I do not believe that the “Not your typical party” booklet features the parliamentary crest. Again, I don’t have the booklets on hand to check, so it could be the case that later printings carried the crest while the earlier editions (including the PDF version) which I studied more closely did have the parliamentary seal. A publication featuring the crest indicates that a document is for pure parliamentary purposes (i.e. informing constituents on policy), rather than for electioneering (i.e. vote getting). As you will see by looking through the PDF, the booklet is about getting new members and votes, so is almost certainly about the latter and not the former. ACT would appear to have realised this and thus paid for the booklet out of party funds.

Interestingly ACT also produced a more reserved looking, A5-size booklet (without the “Not your typical party” label) featuring some fairly in-depth explanation of policies including the Taxpayer Rights Bill and the Regulatory Responsibility Bill. This did feature the parliamentary crest – which tells me that ACT knew what it was doing. The attractive, electioneering pamphlet was paid for out of party funds, while the legitimate policy-explanation booklet (which while tidy enough, would in all honesty would send the average voter to sleep) was paid for by Parliamentary Services. Unfortunately I don’t have a PDF version of the bigger booklet but if you compare them side-by-side, it’s clear they serve different purposes and are intended to come under different sets of rules.

The issue then is whether it should have featured an authorisation as an election advertisement because it was distributed to journalists at the conference. I would share the Electoral Commission’s view that this is a grey area.

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