Why Link Votes and Benefits? It’s possible that the Labour Party is simply attempting to put some legislative flesh on the bones of its new “communitarian” ideology. At the heart of communitarianism lies the assertion that for every “inalienable right” enjoyed by the citizen, there is a corresponding, and equally inalienable, responsibility.
WHO IS PETER GOODFELLOW? Most New Zealanders wouldn’t have a clue. And that’s as it should be. Generally speaking, people only recognise the name of a political party’s president when that party is in trouble. Or, as was the case with National’s Sir George Chapman, when they’ve played a decisive role in their party’s political victories. National’s current president, the aforementioned Mr Goodfellow, enjoys the well-earned anonymity of success.
Alas, the same cannot be said of the Labour Party’s governing body, which last week presented a submission to Parliament’s Justice and Electoral select committee raising the possibility of “making enrolment to vote a pre-condition to receipt of various forms of state support”. In other words: if you’re not enrolled, you won’t get your benefit. There are, Labour submitted, “advantages and potential disadvantages to the approach” and, since it had already been adopted in other countries, “it is incumbent on us to examine all options to see if they are feasible in our context.”
Where to begin with this curious proposal? Perhaps by pointing out that s.82 of The Electoral Act 1993 already provides for the compulsory registration of electors – on pain of a $100.00 fine for the first conviction, and a $200.00 fine for the second and any subsequent convictions.
If the NZ Council of the Labour Party was unaware of this, then it should not have been. And if it was aware, then why did it consider some further inducement to enrolment necessary?
It’s possible that the Labour Party is simply attempting to put some legislative flesh on the bones of its new “communitarian” ideology. At the heart of communitarianism lies the assertion that for every “inalienable right” enjoyed by the citizen, there is a corresponding, and equally inalienable, responsibility.
Much of Labour’s current policy platform is permeated with communitarian ideas – especially in the area of social welfare. Beneficiaries in receipt of public support are expected to reciprocate by doing all within their power to return to the workforce. If they have entitlements, Labour argues, then so does society.
By what right does any citizen not enrolled to vote lay claim to the support of his or her fellow citizens? If such people refuse to fulfil what is both a legal requirement and a civic duty, then isn’t society entitled to withhold its duty of care until those responsibilities are met? Putting it bluntly: without the pro quo, nobody gets a quid.
The other explanation for Labour’s curious submission is considerably less lofty.
Despite enormous effort by scores of tireless volunteers, tens-of-thousands of likely Labour voters failed to enrol in time for last year’s election. Though technically in breach of the Electoral Act, these citizens will probably not be prosecuted. Receiving no disincentive to repeating the offence, there’s every chance their names will not appear on the roll again in 2017.
If, however, tens-of-thousands of social welfare beneficiaries: people who, most experts agree, are much more inclined to vote for political parties of the Left than the Right; were required (ably assisted by Work and Income staff) to fulfil their legal obligations as electors before receiving their benefits, then the Labour Party would be saved a huge amount of hard political slog.
Getting people to the polling booths is one thing, but if they are there discovered to be not on the roll, then the bureaucratic hurdles placed before them can be formidable. Frequently, the sheer volume of paperwork proves too daunting for these often poorly educated and/or non-English-speaking citizens to attempt, and the potential Labour vote is lost.
When viewed from this perspective, Labour’s submission not only appears organisationally self-serving, but it could also be construed as a subtle thrust against the emerging strategic preference (among Andrew Little’s principal advisers) for Labour’s effort to be directed at “soft” National Party voters. Many on the left of the Labour Party are convinced that the tens-of-thousands of unregistered voters constitute a more wholesome electoral target than some twenty-first century version of “Rob’s Mob”.
That Labour’s submission ended up attracting so much (presumably unwanted) media attention more than bears out the observation with which this discussion began. That one of the best ways of telling whether or not things are going well for a political party is how invisible its organisational wing is willing to become, and how anonymous its leadership.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 May 2015.