Thursday, August 25, 2011

Do our minor parties have the membership to be eligible for the 2011 election?

I wonder if any of our minor parties are ineligible for the 2011 election.

A fact that I just found out from the Electoral Office is that not only does a group need to attain 500 members to become a party, it also needs to keep 500 on its books to remain a legal entity.

The Electoral Finance Act (1993) states in Section 67, Clause 3 that
It shall be the duty of the secretary of any political party registered under this Act—
(Part d) to notify the Electoral Commission if the number of current financial members of the party who are eligible to enrol as electors falls below 500

The Act goes on to explain in section 70, clause 2 of the ramifications of not keeping membership above 500, “The Electoral Commission shall cancel the registration of any political party on being satisfied that the number of current financial members of the party who are eligible to enrol as electors has fallen below 500.

Political parties are duty bound to provide a declaration every year that their membership is above 500 and the Electoral Office pretty much takes that as gospel. Officially they can challenge the declaration if they are not satisfied, in doing this the Electoral Office can request the members list, and for evidence on how the information on the list was gathered. I am reliably informed this ‘challenge’ has never happened to any party.

To be a member on a political party list you must be an eligible voter which means you must be living, over 18, a NZ Citizen who has been in the country sometime in the past three years or a Permanent Resident who has been in the country sometime in the past 12 months. Finally you must not be incarcerated at the time of the election.

So of our minor parties, are there any that don’t fulfil that membership criteria?

I have just spoken with ‘Margaret’ at ACT’s head office and asked her about how many members ACT has, and how they check if their members are eligible voters. Margaret let me know that they had about 1,000 members and when they send out renewal forms they had to sign the bottom declaring they were over 18. ACT does not check any of the other criteria to ensure their members are eligible voters. Margaret tells me that she would know if any of the members were not in the country during the previous 3 years as ‘the membership is so small’ that she knows them all. When I questioned her on ‘knowing’ 1,000 people I was informed that the board members check to see if anyone was off shore making them ineligible.

‘Michael’ at The Greens tells me that they check to make sure their members are eligible by comparing names of members to the electoral role. The Greens say if they are eligible to vote, they are eligible members…not strictly true when you think that this process must happen every year as a declaration to the Electoral Office which means in theory members could vote in an election, then move offshore for a period of time (or end up in prison) and no longer be eligible.

The Maori Party openly accept members who are not eligible, they have some members as young as 13 years of age, and their checks on the criteria around location is based around someone’s address. However they have 15,000 active members according to Te Orohi Paul, which would mean even if there are some members who would breach the criteria they would still have more than enough to breach the 500 threshold.

The Revenue Minister and Honourable Peter Dunne spoke to me personally when I phoned United Future, and whilst first stating UF won’t disclose numbers of memberships stating the membership was ‘substantially in excess of [500]’, by the end of our cordial chat, and upon hearing that other parties had disclosed their numbers, Mr. Dunne estimated the membership to be around the 800 mark. When pressed about how UF confirms that his membership is eligible I was told that there was a revamp of how they do it this year, including conversations with the Electoral Office and a new form was in place. On the new form there was now a place to make sure the members are eligible. The form asks if the member is over 18, and eligible to vote. Nowhere on the form does it explain actually what criteria are needed to be fulfilled to be eligible.

Although they are not in parliament presently, and most don’t seem to think they’ll be there after November 26th, I thought it might be interesting to find out how NZ First has gone with its membership since 2008. Membership Secretary Tracey Martin explained that it was party policy that they would not release how many members they have, explaining that it was no use to anyone but her to know that number. She made it clear that she had to sign the declaration with the Electoral Office each year and that was all the information that I should require. They do check their memberships against the electoral role and they must have a valid NZ address which once again puts them in the same camp as The Greens where NZ First is putting the onus of truth onto their members that the information they are giving is true on whether they are eligible.

The idea around looking at minor party membership began when I heard ‘whispers’ that ACT and United Future didn’t have the 500 members required to be eligible party to compete in the election…pure rumour no evidence given, however an interesting observation began to take shape when I told the various minor parties about what I was writing about without mentioning what rumours I had heard, they almost all mentioned ACT and United Future not having 500 members. Was this true...or  had I become a patsy in a smear campaign against two of the minor parties supporting the National Government?

So are ACT and United Future viable? Was their claim to me that that had 1,000 and 800 members respectively accurate?

I told ACT of the whispers and asked if there were prepared to release their list of members, or provide other evidence of their numbers to dispel the rumour and was told by Party Secretary Gary Mallet that he ‘was not interested in dispelling the myth’ and ‘why would [he] do that…what was in it for [him]?’ and then he promptly hung up. Likewise United Future, upon hearing of the rumour said they had more members than required to ‘satisfy the 500.’

I don’t necessarily think there is a smoking gun here, it’s not my place to accuse party members that their telling ‘porkies’ about their numbers, but the reason I started this wee investigation is that it seems fair that if a new party starting out needs 500 members ala Mana and the Conservative Party then it would seem appropriate that incumbent parties are held to the same standard.

Let me make one thing clear, I am not accusing ACT or United Future of misleading the Electoral Office the idea that a political party would make a false declaration to the Electoral Office is very serious, but what I can say unequivocally is that no party is fulfilling the criteria to ensure that their members are eligible voters. All parties are asking their members to signify that they are eligible, however they are not expecting proof and/or they are not providing the information for their members to know whether they are eligible or not.

Again I don’t suspect that there is a smoking gun here, but this is the highest court in the land, surely we have a duty of care to do things properly.

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