A small win for third party political freedom

The federal parliamentary review of campaign finance law reported last Friday (an Age report with a slightly misleading first paragraph is here.) In put in a submission on third parties. A less technical article on the draconinan NSW and Queensland third party laws – my nightmare scenario – is here.

My summary reaction: it could have been a lot worse. Though I disagree with much of what the majority report says, they have held back on most of the extreme NSW and QLD attacks on political freedom. My views were given a fair hearing – I appeared before the committee and my submission is frequently cited in the chapter on third parties.

Most of the material I disagree with on the lowering the donations disclosure threshold, bans on anonymous donations and bans on foreign donations (critiqued here) is just the same old stuff that Labor has repeatedly tried to legislate over the last few years, not a new reform agenda. (Unfortunately it will probably now pass with Green support).

They have actually accepted one of my recommendations, that the political expenditure laws applying to third parties no longer include ‘the public expression of views on an issue in an election by other means’. It would still include materials requiring the ‘written and authorised’ message and other party political material. This would remove the routine activity of think thanks, universities and the media from the law (which is ignored anyway, but the threat of prosecution would be lifted).

As disclosure is annual, it also avoids the need to predict what the election issues will be in two or three years time.

The caps on donations that NSW and Queensland have introduced ($2,000) are not recommended.

The committee does want to further consider caps on third party expenditure during campaign periods ‘to help ensure that public debate is not dominated by high levels of spending by these groups’. In my Policy article on this subject I said this:

a contest for the attention of voters during an election campaign should be seen in the context of the overall balance of power between governments and third parties. Third-party campaigns usually arise only when a government is acting, or proposing to act, in ways seriously contrary to the interests of the third party, or the people whose interests or views it represents.

As it has legislative power, the government is the more powerful party, no matter what financial resources a third party may possess. A third-party campaign is usually a final attempt to appeal to the ultimate arbiters in a democracy, the electorate. Effectively, the ALP national secretariat submission argues that in government the party should be granted substantial immunity from large-scale, organised opposition in the later part of its term.

Aside from the in-principle objections to this idea, there are major practical obstacles. A limit on each third party campaign does not mean that third party campaigns collectively can’t buy a lot of media space. The current government faces multiple simultaneous third party campaigns, for example. Trying to incorporate them all into one cap means that whoever gets in first sucks all the oxygen out of other campaigns, including opposing campaigns. I don’t see how it can work without seriously, and arbitrarily, reducing the political freedoms of some or all third parties.

Momentum is still with the pro-campaign finance law lobby. But this report has not given them much that they did not have already.

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