New Zealand’s parliament is debating a Bill to stop groups like the Exclusive Brethren sect from unduly influencing elections.
The Electoral Finance Bill was conceived in the wake of the 2005 election, when members of the Christian sect spent $NZ1.2 million ($1m) on an anti-Labour Party advertising campaign.
New Zealand’s then opposition leader Don Brash later admitted he’d known about the Brethren’s activities.
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Parliamentarians today began the second reading of the Bill, which is expected to be passed into law next week.
If passed, the Bill will replace the existing Electoral Act, which allows groups or companies to spend unlimited amounts of money to anonymously advertise their views during election campaigns.
Under the new rules, individuals and groups will be limited to anonymous advertising expenditure up to $NZ12,000.
Any person or group wanting to exceed that must surrender their anonymity and register, and even then are restricted to a maximum advertising budget of $NZ120,000.
The Bill has sparked widespread debate among civil libertarians and in media circles, amid claims it will impede free speech.
“Democracy under attack” said a front page headline in the New Zealand Herald newspaper today. “There will be no winners if the Electoral Finance Bill is passed into law this week,” the paper said in an editorial.
A demonstration on the weekend saw 5000 march in Auckland against its introduction.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has portrayed the Bill as a way to create a level playing field for political debate in the run-up to elections.
“Do you want money politics to distort New Zealand’s elections and democracy or do you want the sort of rules that around the world western democracies put in place?” she said yesterday.
Justice Minister Annette King said the new laws would safeguard democracy.
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