I've just got back to New Zealand from a three-week overseas holiday. At least, I think it's New Zealand. Reading people's comments about the Electoral Finance Bill, I can't help wondering if my return flight somehow crossed into the Twilight Zone.
The Electoral Finance Bill is the most serious assault on free speech and political expression ever seen in the developed world - and the recent amendments to it have changed nothing.
In the New Zealand I thought I knew, most people figured this bill was trying to achieve something important: to remove the corrupting influence of big money in politics. To make parties tell voters who is behind the huge donations they receive. To make sure the public could find out who's behind the swag of pamphlets, billboards and ads they're exposed to at election time. To limit the power of a few to swing elections using the sort of wealth the rest of us can't hope to compete with.
The New Zealanders I thought I knew only needed to remember the 2005 election to remind themselves why these things were important. Almost until the eve of the election, no-one knew who was behind the Exclusive Brethren's million-dollar pamphlet campaign -- or about National's involvement in that campaign.
Nor do we have any idea who provided Labour and National with hundreds of thousands of dollars to bankroll their electioneering - or what those people might hope for in return.
It was clear that our electoral system needed a healthy dose of transparency. And that we should have listened more closely the Royal Commission on the electoral system in 1986 when they warned of the need to minimise the effects of economic inequalities on public debate for democracy to prosper.
Still, the Electoral Finance Bill as originally drafted was a horrible disappointment. There was nothing restricting secret trusts and anonymous donations to political parties. On the other hand, the restrictions on the speech of others who wanted to be involved in the debate were far too tight. As drafted, that bill was an attack on democracy.
There was an outcry, and a chastened government publicly announced that changes would be made. Sensible people responded by grumbling about the closed-door process being followed, but resolved to wait for the changes and see whether they really made things better.
Non-sensible people continued to rail against the bill as if the government had announced it was going to pass the bill in exactly the same form.
Well, now we can all see the changes. And as someone who's spent his life studying, writing about, and arguing free speech issues, I think this bill is much better. It shortens the net capturing "election advertisements". It doubles the amount that people can spend on them. It scraps the onerous statutory declaration regime. It restricts overseas donations. Best of all, it introduces new controls on secret trusts and anonymous donations.
I am mystified by the people who are claiming that the changes aren't significant and that the bill is still "draconian". Bill English: this means you. Why are you telling people that this is about silencing Labour's critics? Shouldn't you point out that it equally restricts Labour's cheerleaders, and National's critics?
How can you justify calling this "heavy regulation" of free speech? Shouldn't you mention that no more than a handful of people want to spend more than $120,000 on electioneering? And that hardly any of us even spend the $12,000 that would require us to register our identities with the Electoral Commission so that everyone knows who's behind our ads? Most of us exercise free speech by talking to each other, writing letters to the editor, and talking to the media. Those things aren't regulated at all.
What's that you're saying about the regulations applying one year in every three? Shouldn't you point out that political speech in the early months of the year is very unlikely to be calling for people to vote one way or another - so it won't fall under the Act?
For example, if the Sensible Sentencing Trust runs an ad in March calling for MPs to vote for the More Prisons Amendment Bill, that speech won't be affected. If they run an ad in October calling for the public to vote against the parties who refused to support the More Prisons Amendment Bill, it will count as an election advertisement. As it should.
Is the bill perfect? No. There are still some flaws. I'd like to see the limit for anonymous donations reduced still further, for example. Why should parties be able to get $10,000 donations each year from people without telling voters their identities?
And the bill should be tweaked to make it clear that people with loudhailers and placards don't have to put their names and addresses on them (the government has announced it will fix this).
I'm still hoping that shortly I'll land back in the New Zealand that has a sense of fairness and proportion, and can debate this revised bill on its merits. When that happens, we might start asking ourselves some really interesting questions, such as who stands to gain most from the lack of fairness and transparency in the present system -- the system that will prevail if this bill is defeated?
Steven Price is co-founder of the Coalition for Open Government.