Donations have no place in the political race
Over the past few years, the rivers of private donations to political parties have grown into a flood of Queensland proportions. In the the past five years, including the 2007 and 2010 elections, the two major parties have enjoyed donations of over $700 million.
Under the Electoral Act, large donors, and the parties they supported, have to be publicly reported through the Electoral Commission. But there are too many loopholes which seriously erode the transparency. The Rudd/Gillard governments have admitted reform is necessary, but it has apparently been put on the back burner.
However, NSW Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell has come to the party. His proposed reforms will pass the parliament, as the Greens have promised to support them. When the legislation comes into force, the NSW law on private donations to political parties will be the toughest in Australia.
The NSW law will allow private donations, but only from individuals who are on the electoral roll, and then to a maximum of $5 000 per year.
Further, there will be a complete ban of any donations to political parties from corporations, trade unions, and other organisations.
These will also be banned from donating to any other non-party organisations which are involved in political campaigns. Businesses will not have a problem with this, especially as many of them already take the “belt and braces” option, and donate to both Labor and the Coalition.
But the Labor party and the unions will not be happy. Labor reels in millions of dollars through union affiliation fees, and more millions are spent by unions supporting the party in elections. This will be banned in NSW.
Unions have already complained bitterly. The Unions NSW leader described it as a law “that silences the political voice of working people”. In fact, it does nothing of the sort. It actually expands their rights. Any individual person, working or not, trade union or not, will still have the right to donate to a political party.
What the law does is remove the power of trades unions to donate part of their members’ fees to a particular party without ascertaining whether the union member wishes to donate, and to which party.
The law will have a potential to transform the Labor party. Since the 1960s, Labor has had to appeal increasingly to all classes, groups and sectors. It became clear that the traditional blue-collar “working class” had diminished to the point where Labor could not hope to win any election on their votes alone.
But the union movement has retained control the Labor party, and unions are the base of the dominating factions. If the NSW law means that Labor loses the huge donations and affiliation fees from unions, then there is little need for the union-party link to be continued.
For that reason alone, the union movement is likely to take the new law to the High Court. There may be a precedent. In 1991, the Hawke government passed a law to ban paid political advertising on electronic media. This is where most of the rivers of cash are used.
But the High Court struck the law down. Not on the basis of a specific statement in the Constitution, but because the Court found an implied right of freedom of speech and communication!
The O’Farrell Act is a sound and democratic one. Elections should not be decided by which party has the most privately donated money to spend. If the law survives a court challenge, the state and commonwealth should immediately pass a similar statute. Then the rivers of money will be limited to what individual voters wish to offer to the political parties.
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