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Summary

A mixed member proportional electoral system is in place in New Zealand, with voters having both a candidate vote and a party vote. The Electoral Act 1993 contains limits on how much candidates and parties can spend on election advertising in the three months before an election, being NZ$26,100 for a candidate and up to a maximum of NZ$2,964,100 for parties, if they have candidates standing in each of the seventy-one electorates. Persons, groups, and companies not contesting the election who publish election advertisements can spend up to a maximum of NZ$313,000. These figures are adjusted each year based on inflation.

There is no limit on the amount that a New Zealand-based person or company can donate to a candidate or party, provided that they disclose their identity to the recipient. An anonymous donation or an overseas donation cannot exceed NZ$1,500.

The Broadcasting Act 1989 allows candidates to spend money on radio and television advertising that promotes a vote for themselves, but only up to their spending limit and only during a set election period. They cannot broadcast negative advertising. Eligible political parties are allocated an amount of public funding to pay for radio and television advertising based on certain criteria, and are also allocated free broadcasting time for opening and closing addresses. They cannot use their own funds to purchase additional broadcasting time.

I.  Introduction

New Zealand has a mixed-member proportional voting system in which candidates from different parties stand for single-member electorates (i.e., electoral districts) and parties receive a total number of seats in Parliament based on their overall share of the nationwide party vote.[1] Therefore, voters have two votes in the general election: a candidate vote and a party vote. A party will be represented in Parliament if it either wins at least one electorate seat or receives more than 5% of the party votes. Members are taken from a party list to make up the party’s share of the seats in Parliament.[2]

There are seventy-one electorates in the country, including seven electorates specifically for Māori candidates (the indigenous people of New Zealand).[3] Currently, there are a total of 121 seats in Parliament and seven parties are represented.[4] The term of each Parliament is three years, although it may be dissolved at any time, resulting in an earlier election.[5] Elections are not held on a date set by legislation; rather, the date is set by a “writ” issued by the Governor- General, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister.[6] The writ is the formal direction to the Electoral Commission, which  is  responsible  for  the  administration  of  elections,  to  hold an election.[7]

There are two major statutes containing rules related to campaign financing, spending on election advertising, and the allocation of time and money for campaign advertising on radio and television: the Electoral Act 1993[8] and the Broadcasting Act 1989.[9] The relevant provisions in the Electoral Act 1993 were most recently amended in 2010.[10] This followed considerable controversy and debate relating to campaign finance rules and their application in the preceding years,  with  the  previous  government  enacting  major  reforms  through  legislation  passed  in 2008.[11] Those reforms were subsequently repealed and replaced by the current government.[12]

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II.  Limits on Spending and Donations

A.  Spending Limits

Campaign spending related to election advertising[13] is subject to restrictions and reporting requirements during a “regulated period,” which is defined in the Electoral Act 1993 as starting on the later of the following days and ending on the day before the election is held: (i) the day after the date on which the Prime Minister gives public notice of the date of an election, or (ii) the day that is three months before the date of the election.[14] Therefore, the maximum length of the regulated period is three months.

Part 6A of the Electoral Act 1993 sets out limits on spending on election advertising for both candidates and parties. These limits are adjusted each year based on inflation.[15] The figures set out in this report are inclusive of goods and services tax, a 15% tax added to the price of most goods and services in New Zealand.[16]

Apportionment rules apply to expenses where election advertising comprises both a candidate advertisement and a party advertisement,[17] is an advertisement for two or more parties[18] or candidates,[19] or was  published  both  before  and  after  the  commencement  of  the regulated period.[20]

It is an offense for a candidate or party to pay election expenses in excess of the prescribed maximum amounts set out in the legislation.[21]

1.  Candidate Spending Limit

Under the Electoral Act 1993, the “total election expenses of a candidate in respect of any regulated period” must not currently exceed NZ$26,100 (about US$17,240) where he or she is a candidate in a general election.[22] A limit of NZ$52,200 applies where a candidate stands in a by election.[23]

2.  Party Spending Limit

Where a party is listed on the ballot paper that relates to the party vote, its total election expenses during the regulated period must not currently exceed NZ$1,111,000 (about US$734,300). An additional NZ$26,100 can be spent for each electorate contested by a candidate for the party.[24] Therefore, the maximum that a party can spend (if it  has candidates in all electorates) is NZ$2,964,100 (about US$1,959,000).

3.  Spending Limit for “Registered Promoters”

Separate from parties and candidates, a New Zealand-based person, group, or company[25] that incurs expenses with respect to election advertisements above a threshold of NZ$12,600[26] must register with the Electoral Commission as a “registered promoter.”[27] The total election expenses of a registered promoter during a regulated period currently must not exceed NZ$313,000 (about US$207,000).[28] It is an offense to spend more than this amount.[29]

B.  Limits on Donations

There is no maximum limit on the amount of donations or value of contributions that an identified New Zealand-based person or company can make to a candidate or party.[30] Instead, there is  a threshold  above which a donation from such  a person  (either on its  own or in aggregate) must be reported by a candidate or party in the annual returns that they submit to the Electoral Commission, being NZ$1,500 (about US$990) for donations to candidates[31] and NZ$15,000 for donations to parties.[32]

However, an anonymous donation or an overseas donation or contribution to either a candidate or party cannot exceed NZ$1,500. A candidate or party that receives an anonymous donation above this amount must pay the excess amount to the Electoral Commission, which deposits it into the government account.[33] The excess amount of an overseas donation must be returned to the donor, if possible, or paid to the Electoral Commission.[34]

The legislation does provide a mechanism for essentially anonymous donations to be made to a candidate or party in excess of the $1,500 limit. Such donations are paid directly to the Electoral Commission, with the identity of the donor disclosed, which then transmits them to the relevant candidate or party without disclosing the identity of the donor.[35] Limits apply to the total amount of donations that a party can receive in this way and to the amount of donations from a single donor during the three years between elections.[36]

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III. Broadcasting Restrictions and Allocations

Part 6 of the Broadcasting Act 1989 relates to the broadcasting, over television or radio, of “parliamentary election programmes.”[37] A different “election period,” as opposed to the regulated period referred to above, applies with respect to the relevant provisions in this Act, being the period beginning with the day that the election writ is issued by the Governor-General and ending the day before the election.[38]

A.  Restrictions on Broadcasting Election Programs

The Act specifies that “no broadcaster shall permit  the broadcasting, within or outside an election period, of an election programme,” except as provided for in the Act.[39] The Act explicitly allows broadcasting of the following:

  1. (a) an opening address or closing address that is broadcast—
    1. (i) for a political party or group of related political parties; and
    2. (ii) by TVNZ [Television New Zealand] or RNZ [Radio New Zealand] during time allocated to that political party or group of related political parties under section 73(1); or
  1. (b) an election programme broadcast for a political party or group of related political parties and paid for with money allocated to that political party or group of related political parties under section 74A; or
  1. (c) an election programme—
    1. (i) broadcast for a fee or other consideration; and
    2. (ii) relating solely to 1 named constituency candidate at an election; and
    3. (iii) used  or  appearing to  be used to  promote  or procure the election of the candidate; and
    4. (iv) broadcast  by  the  candidate  or  with  the  candidate’s  authority  within  the election period; or
  1. (d) any advertisement placed by the Electoral Commission, a Registrar of Electors, a Returning Officer, or other official for the purposes of the Electoral Act 1993; or
  1. (e) any  non-partisan  advertisement  broadcast,  as   a   community   service,   by the broadcaster.[40]

Therefore, individual candidates are able to pay for their own election advertising on radio and television during the election period, although the spending limits referred to in Part II, above, apply. They cannot broadcast negative advertising or advertising that advocates for the party vote.[41] Their party may fund the advertising from any broadcasting funding allocation that it receives, as discussed below.[42]

Groups or individuals that are not political parties or candidates cannot run broadcast advertising related to an election unless the advertising “does not advocate for or against identifiable parties or candidates.”[43]

B.  Free Broadcasting Time for Opening and Closing Addresses

The broadcasting of opening and closing addresses of parties, referred to in the above provision, is subject to various provisions in the Act.[44] The broadcasting time must be provided free of charge by the two public broadcasters,[45] and the relevant production costs are funded by the Electoral Commission using public money.[46] The Electoral Commission is responsible for determining how much of the available broadcasting time is allocated to each political party for such addresses, based on the  same  criteria  used  for  allocating  broadcasting  funding,  set out below.[47]

C.  Broadcasting Funding Allocation

For each election period, the Electoral Commission allocates an amount of public funding to eligible parties “for the purpose of enabling [them] to meet all or part of the costs of broadcasting election programmes during that election period.”[48] The money allocated to a party can only be used for the purpose of meeting the production costs of any election program broadcast during the election period, or the cost of broadcasting time for such programs.[49] Parties “cannot use their own funds to purchase additional broadcasting time. They can use their own funds for production costs within their election expenditure limits.”[50]

The following criteria must be considered by the Electoral Commission in determining the allocation of money to a party, and of the time available for opening and closing addresses:

  1. (a) the number of persons who voted at the immediately preceding general election for that party and for candidates belonging to that political party; and
  2. (b) the number of persons who voted at any by-election held since the immediately preceding general election for any candidate belonging to that political party; and
  3. (c) the number of members of Parliament who were members of that political party immediately before the dissolution or expiration of Parliament; and
  4. (d) any relationships that exist between a political party and any other political party; and
  5. (e) any other indications of public support for that political party such as the results of public opinion polls and the number of persons who are members of that political party; and
  6. (f) the need to provide a fair opportunity for each political party to which subsection (1) applies to convey its policies to the public by the broadcasting of election programmes on television.[51]

D.  2014 Allocation of Broadcasting Time and Money

For the most recent election, held in September 2014, a total of sixty broadcasting minutes was made available for opening addresses and the same amount of time for closing addresses. Of this time, the National Party (which had gained the most votes in the previous election) received fifteen minutes and thirty seconds for its opening address and sixteen minutes fifteen seconds for its closing address. The other major party, the Labour Party, received thirteen minutes and thirty seconds and fourteen minutes ten seconds, respectively.[52]

The total amount of broadcasting allocation money appropriated by Parliament in 2014 was NZ$3,283,250 (about  US$2,171,000).  This  was the same amount  as was  allocated in  the previous three elections. Of this amount, the National Party received NZ$1,076,229 (about US$711,800) and the Labour Party received NZ$939,565 (about US$621,400). Fifteen other parties were also allocated funding, only three of which received more than NZ$100,000.[53]

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Prepared by Kelly Buchanan
Chief, Foreign, Comparative, and
International Law Division I
March 2016


[1] See generally, KELLY BUCHANAN, LAW LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, NEW ZEALAND: GENERAL ELECTIONS (Nov.2011), http://www.loc.gov/law/help/new_zealand_elections.php, archived at https://perma.cc/MD4R-B2ZX.

[2] MMP Voting System, ELECTORAL COMMISSION, http://www.elections.org.nz/voting-system/mmp-voting-system (last updated Oct. 20, 2014), archived at https://perma.cc/3ZG8-U8QH.

[3] MPs, Parties and Electorates, NEW ZEALAND PARLIAMENT, http://www.parliament.nz/en-nz/MPP (last visited Feb. 29, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/7S6G-K674.

[4] Parliamentary Parties, NEW ZEALAND PARLIAMENT, http://www.parliament.nz/en-nz/mpp/parties (last visited Feb. 29, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/9WED-3LVJ.

[5] Constitution Act 1986, s 17, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1986/0114/latest/whole.html, archived at https://perma.cc/6939-GKV6.

[6] See OFFICE OF THE CLERK OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, PARLIAMENT AND THE GENERAL ELECTION (Aug. 2014), http://www.clerk.parliament.govt.nz/resource/en-nz/00HOOOCPubResAboutFactSheetsElection1/0be87c971 ca77c1583565ac08fd0eb20742f7fc0, archived at https://perma.cc/H9XK-YYS3.

[7] Writ Day, NEW ZEALAND PARLIAMENT (Aug. 20, 2014), http://www.clerk.parliament.govt.nz/en-nz/features/ 00NZPHomeNews201408201/writ-day, archived at https://perma.cc/2SE3-8ETP.

[8] Electoral Act 1993, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1993/0087/latest/whole.html, archived at https://perma.cc/6Q4H-HAP4.

[9] Broadcasting Act 1989, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1989/0025/latest/whole.html, archived at https://perma.cc/73C4-93WJ.

[10] Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Amendment Act 2010, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/ act/public/2010/0137/latest/whole.html, archived at https://perma.cc/4NQ6-H9V4.

[11] Electoral Finance Act 2007, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2007/0111/latest/whole.html, archived at https://perma.cc/33RP-URW2, repealed by Electoral Amendment Act 2009, § 15, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/ act/public/2009/0001/latest/whole.html, archived at https://perma.cc/ZA98-NQH9.

[12] See Press Release, Simon Power, Parliament Passes New Electoral Finance Laws (Dec. 15, 2010), https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/parliament-passes-new-electoral-finance-laws,  archived athttps://perma.cc/X9LU-8TWG.

[13] “Election advertisement” is defined in section 3A(1)(a) of the Electoral Act 1993, and candidate and party advertisements are defined in section 3(1). Electoral Commission guidance states that [e]lection advertisement is defined as an advertisement in any medium that may reasonably be regarded as encouraging or persuading voters to vote or not vote:

  • for a candidate or party, or
  • a type of party or candidate described or indicated by reference to views or positions that are, or are not, held or taken (for example, vote for parties that support lowering the drinking age).

Guidance for MPs – Election Advertising Rules: Definition of ‘Election Advertisement’, ELECTORAL COMMISSION, http://www.elections.org.nz/guidance-mps-election-advertising-rules/definition-election-advertisement (emphasis in original) (last updated May 9, 2014), archived at https://perma.cc/S2QE-YHR7.

[14] Electoral Act 1993, s 3B(2).

[15] Id. s 266A. See Electoral (Expenditure Limit) Order (No 2) 2015, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/ regulation/public/2015/0266/latest/DLM6638801.html, archived at https://perma.cc/K885-9BL5.

[16] About GST, INLAND REVENUE, http://www.ird.govt.nz/gst/gst-registering/gst-about/ (last updated Feb. 16, 2016), archived at https://perma.cc/Q6Z2-6LPT.

[17] Electoral Act 1993, ss 205EA & 206CC.

[18] Id. s 206CB.

[19] Id. s 205E.

[20] Id. ss 205D & 206CA. See Guidance for MPs – Election Advertising Rules: Apportionment of Election Expenses, ELECTORAL COMMISSION, http://www.elections.org.nz/guidance-mps-election-advertising-rules/apportionment-election-expenses (last updated May 9, 2014), archived at https://perma.cc/J69V-Y4JT.

[21] Electoral Act 1993, ss 205F & 206D.

[22] Id. s 205C(1)(a). According to section 205 of the Act, the “election expenses” of candidates refers to “the advertising expenses incurred in relation to a candidate advertisement” that

  1. (i) is published, or continues to be published, during the regulated period; and
  2. (ii) is promoted by—
  3. (A) the candidate; or
  4. (B) any person (including a registered promoter) authorised by the candidate; . . . .

“Advertising expenses” are further defined in section 3E of the Electoral Act 1993. “Candidate advertisement” is defined in section 3(1).

[23] Id. s 205C(1)(b).

[24] Id. s 206C. The definition of “election expenses” in relation to a party is similar to that for a candidate, set out in note 22, supra. Id. s 206.

[25] See id. s 204K (stating who is eligible to register as a registered promoter). An overseas entity can be an “unregistered promoter” and spend up to the threshold amount.

[26] Id. s 204B.

[27] Id. s 204K.

[28] Id. s 206V.

[29] Id. s 206X.

[30] See id. s 207K(1), which defines an “overseas person” as

  1. (a) an individual who—
  2. (i) resides outside New Zealand; and
  3. (ii) is not a New Zealand citizen or registered as an elector; or
  4. (b) a body corporate incorporated outside New Zealand; or
  5. (c) an unincorporated body that has its head office or principal place of business outside New Zealand.

[31] Id. s 209(1)(a).

[32] Id. s 210(1)(a).

[33] Id. s 207I.

[34] Id. s 207K.

[35] Id. s 208A.

[36] Id. s 208B.

[37] An “election programme” is defined by section 69(1) of the Broadcasting Act 1989 as a program that

  1. (a) encourages or persuades or appears to encourage or persuade voters to vote for a political party or the election of any person at an election; or
  2. (b) encourages or persuades or appears to encourage or persuade voters not to vote for a political party or the election of any person at an election; or
  3. (c) advocates support for a candidate or for a political party; or
  4. (d) opposes a candidate or a political party; or
  5. (e) notifies meetings held or to be held in connection with an election.

“Programme” is further defined in section 2(1) of the Act.

[39] Broadcasting Act 1989, s 69(1).

[39] Id. s 70(1).

[40] Id. s 70(2).

[41] Broadcasting, ELECTORAL COMMISSION, http://www.elections.org.nz/parties-candidates/broadcasting (last  updated Oct. 16, 2014), archived at https://perma.cc/3USQ-NV4E; Guidance for MPs – Election Advertising Rules: Broadcasting, ELECTORAL COMMISSION, http://www.elections.org.nz/guidance-mps-election-advertising-rules/broadcasting (last updated May 9, 2014), archived at https://perma.cc/Z9BB-8THW.

[42] Broadcasting, supra note 41.

[43] Id. See also Third Party Handbook: Part 3 – Election Campaigning by Third Parties, ELECTORAL COMMISSION, http://www.elections.org.nz/third-party-handbook/part-3-election-campaigning-third-parties(last updated Apr. 29, 2014), archived at https://perma.cc/B4JS-M8VP.

[44] Broadcasting Act 1989, ss 71–73, 77 & 77A.

[45] Id. s 71.

[46] Id. s 77A(5) & (6).

[47] Id. ss 73 & 75.

[48] Id. s 74A(1). See also Broadcasting Allocations, ELECTORAL COMMISSION, http://www.elections.org.nz/parties-candidates/broadcasting/broadcasting-allocations (last updated June 19, 2014), archived at https://perma.cc/HYR4-JUDZ.

[49] Broadcasting Act 1989, s 74B(1).

[50] Party Secretary Handbook: Part 1 – Broadcasting Allocation, ELECTORAL COMMISSION, http://www.elections.org.nz/party-secretary-handbook/part-1-broadcasting-allocation (last updated May 14, 2014), archived at https://perma.cc/9X5L-YGUD.

[51] Broadcasting Act 1989, s 75(2).

[52] Broadcasting Allocation 2014 General Election, ELECTORAL COMMISSION, http://www.elections.org.nz/events/2014-general-election/2014-parties-candidates-and-third-parties/broadcasting-allocation-2014 (last updated Aug. 29, 2014), archived at https://perma.cc/9PNC-AF7A.

[53] Id.

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Last Updated: 05/16/2016