Tuesday, June 30, 2020

American election interference in NZ

An American rightwing political group is trying to interfere in the upcoming New Zealand elections, specifically the referendum on cannabis law reform. MPs across the political spectrum have condemned the foreign meddling, which isn’t a surprise. The video above, from TVNZ’s One News, tells the story and features some of the reactions.

The thing is, it’s slick and slimy for any foreigner to interfere with the sovereignty of another country. The US government has done that in the past, and the Russians' interference in the 2016 US elections became notorious, as did their interference in the UK’s Brexit vote and several other European elections.

It’s not clear what the specific ideology of the group is, although they seem to be a far-right pseudo-Christian political organisation, based on the clip featured in the news story. If that's the case, they may very well deny the Russians interfered in 2016, but even if they admit the truth, they wouldn’t be able to grasp why the Russians doing it would be bad—and just as bad for them to do it. It’s wrong in both cases, and their religion doesn’t give them a free pass.

New Zealand doesn’t totally outlaw such foreign meddling—yet—but if the Americans spend money on the referendum, or give it to their “New Zealand” group to spend, it will have to be reported to the New Zealand Electoral Commission. If such money is paid, it would seem that a case could be made that the NZ-based operatives should be required to register as lobbyists, too. None of which is good enough.

In my view, it ought to be illegal under American law to try to interfere in another country’s elections, but that isn’t possible in the current deeply and bitterly divided politics in the USA. So, countries will have to look after themselves.

I believe it ought to be illegal for non-NZ citizens/permanent residents to donate any money whatsoever, directly or indirectly, to any New Zealand election, including referenda. It should be a crime—with a prison sentence and heavy fine—for any New Zealand citizen to accept foreign money to influence a New Zealand election or referendum (money laundering charges might be appropriate in such cases).

New Zealand has already started taking steps to protect New Zealand elections from foreign interference. Late last year, the Government introduced a bill to drastically cut the amount of money that foreigners can donate from the previous $1500 to $50. I think it should be zero, and can’t see any good reason why any contribution from anyone other than NZ citizens or permanent residents should be allowed, no matter how small the amount. However, the Government said it was to avoid trouble with small donations, like when people collect donations on the street or at an event. Maybe that makes the small amount okay?

The bill also banned anonymous online election ads, treating them the same as print and television/radio ads, printed campaign materials, and election signs, all of which must contain the name and address of the person who authorised the ad (which is easy for official ads from parties and real New Zealand political organisations).

“We’ve seen in other countries an avalanche of fake news social media ads that contain no information about who is behind them. That’s not fair and we don’t want to see it repeated here,” Justice Minister Andrew Little said. Indeed.

The law, which came into effect on January 1 of this year, is a very good first step. “We need to protect the integrity of our elections,” the Justice Minister said. “We don’t want our elections to go the way of recent overseas examples where foreign interference appears to have been at play.”

If the law can do something to keep those American meddlers out of our politics, we’ll know the law really works. If not, we’ll need to go farther. New Zealand’s elections ought to be for New Zealanders alone to decide, without foreign interference.

There are actually two referenda on the ballot this year. In addition to the one on cannabis law reform, there's also the End of Life Choice Referendum, I will vote YES on both, and foreign meddlers only make me more determined to vote.

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