Union and business political activity under threat in Queensland

One of my main interests in campaign finance law has been the increasing attempts by political parties to limit ‘third party’ opposition. Governments dislike the campaigns being run against them by interest and issue groups, and since 2006 a series of laws have been passed to obstruct or discourage third party political activity.

Queensland went down this path in 2011, introducing laws restricting political donations from and to third parties, and limiting their spending during campaign periods.

And now there is a new attempt to impose yet more controls. This time the Queensland government proposes using industrial rather than electoral law to implement its policy. This means that it will affect unions and employer associations, but not other third parties. In practice, unions and business tend to be the biggest-spending third parties.

If this bill passes, Queensland unions and employer groups will have to run Electoral Commission ballots if they want to engaged in political expenditure of $10,000 or more in a year. The political expenditure is defined broadly to inlcude a political cause of belief, and not just partisan campaigning (full definition below the fold). Presumably this would cover routine unions campaigns such as those currently being run by the Queensland Council of Unions.

For the expenditure to be approved, 50% of eligible voters must cast a ballot, and of those more than 50% must approve. The cost of the ballot has to be covered by the organisation proposing the expenditure.

Effectively this law imposes huge decision costs on unions and employer groups, since especially mass membership groups like unions will have to spend a lot just informing their membership of the issues. Otherwise, they are unlikely to get the 50% turnout required. The inevitable (and presumably intended) result is that there will be many fewer third party campaigns in Queensland.

The bill is supported by the minister with the usual rhetoric about transparency and accountability. But members of political organisations do not necessarily want to be involved in the detail of campaigns or activism. Joining is an act of delegation, paying others to sort out the detail of a cause or interest the member supports.

Political campaigns are normal business for unions and employer groups. If their members are unhappy with these campaigns they can say so, and vote out the leadership or leave the organisation if they are not satisfied with the leadership’s response. This is all the accountability that is required.

Definition under section 553C.
a political purpose
(1) An organisation spends money for a political
purpose if it spends money for, or by the way of,
any of the following—
(a) giving a gift to a political party;
(b) giving a gift to, or paying the costs or
expenses of, a candidate for election,
whether before, during or after the
candidate’s candidature or election;
(c) publication or distribution in any way,
including through advertising, of material
about a political matter;
(d) an activity other than an activity mentioned
in paragraph (a), (b) or (c) if the activity is
able to, or intended to—
(i) influence a person’s opinion about a
political matter; or
(ii) ascertain a person’s opinion about a
political matter, including, for
example, by opinion polling;
(e) giving an amount to a person on the
understanding that the person or someone
else will apply, either directly or indirectly,
the whole or a part of the amount for an
activity mentioned in paragraph (a) to (d).
(2) In this section—
candidate for election—
(a) means a candidate for election to a
legislature or local government; and
(b) includes a prospective candidate.
legislature means—
(a) the Legislative Assembly; or
(b) the legislature of the Commonwealth or
another State.
local government means a local government or a
local government of another State.
political matter means—
(a) a political party; or
(b) a candidate for election; or
(c) a matter that a reasonable person would
associate with a political object.
political object means—
(a) a political party or other political
organisation; or
(b) a political cause or belief.

political party means an entity whose object, or 1
of whose objects, is the promotion of the election
to a legislature or local government of a
candidate or candidates endorsed by it, or by an
entity of which it is a part.

  1. Andrew, I agree with your last para. By definition, unions and business groups seek to promote their members’ interests including policies that promote their interests. Requiring compulsory ballots with minimum turnout rates is absurd and a barrier to political free speech. I wonder if it would be unconstitutional?

    After Governments started moving down the route of capping political expenditure by third parties – to some extent implementing the policies of the Greens (in NSW at least) – they now feel that they can regulate when organisations can or cannot promote political ideas. This is not defensible.

  2. I too wonder whether this would contravene the implied right to freedom of political expression that the High Court has found in the Constitution.

  3. Queensland IR changes threaten free speech | Freedomwatch - pingback on May 6, 2013 at 3:51 pm
  4. While your last paragraph is theoretically true, it often does not work in practice, admittedly due to member apathy.

    Arguably, unions and representative bodies have increasingly been populated by those interested in the jobs – activists, political aspirants and professional administrators with their own agendas and yet deemed to be representative on all they say and do. The organisation is often necessary for your job, candidates are all similar activist so you just put up.

    Take student unions as a prime example – you can’t argue their antics represent the student body.

    Where members’ apathy harms only themselves – it’s their problem – and it’s where they are likely to act anyway. Where the organisation influences outside society, maybe spurring a bit of democratic responsibility helps.

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