Barry O’Farrell’s unintended favour to traditional vested interests

Barry O’Farrell’s campaign finance reforms were intended to diminish corporate influence in NSW politics. Certainly, they will stop corporations donating directly to political parties. But especially after the 2010 reforms capped these donations at $5,000 a year, and bestowed lavish public funding on the major political arties, this was not a very plausible conduit of influence in any case.

Issues politics has long been trending away from the political parties, and corporate Australia has been following the trend with increasing numbers of 3rd party campaigns. And in this space, ironically O’Farrell’s laws favour traditional vested interests like companies over not-for-profits.

This is because NSW’s campaign finance law tightly regulates spending money via donations at all times, but outside the campaign period from 1 October the year before the election does not regulate other forms of spending. So if a corporate spends its own money, or can structure its political payments to other organisations so that they are for consideration and not a gift (for example, paying a peak body to run a specified campaign), they can spend as much as they like.

Not-for-profits, by contrast, are usually reliant on donations. So under the O’Farrell campaign finance regime, on an issue that may affect voting in a NSW election, a not-for-profit can now only receive donations of up to $2,000 a year from people on the electoral roll. Even other not-for-profits are prevented from giving financial support, as are unions, corporates, permanent residents, people under 18, and others not eligible to be on the electoral roll. Because this includes the federal election roll, as a Victorian on the electoral roll I have more political rights in NSW than many people living in NSW.

Of course corporations have always had deeper pockets than most not-for-profit third parties. But NSW campaign finance law further tips the balance against the not-for-profits, severely hampering their fundraising while leaving corporate political funding largely unaffected.

It’s absurd – but it is now the law.

NSW campaign finance law likely to end up in the High Court

What issue has me lining up with NSW Labor, the ETU, the CPSU and the Shooters and Fishers Party against the NSW Liberal Party? Barry O’Farrell’s campaign finance laws, which were passed by the NSW Parliament this week. The report of the Legislative Council inquiry into these laws shows these organisations were my odd issue bedfellows.

As with the federal inquiry last year, I think my views were given a fair hearing. The final report quoted from my submission many times, though for once I was not a solitary voice on many of the issues I raised. Even many of the usual champions of a more regulated political system thought that this bill went too far.

Unfortunately, despite the report clearly expressing significant concerns with the bill, both on its merits and its constitutionality, the Greens in the end backed the bill with a minor amendment.

The two main effects of the legislation are to:

* during the campaign period starting 1 October the year before a NSW election, any campaign spending that has as a dominant purpose the influencing of voting will be included in the spending cap of any political party to which the campaigning organisation is affiliated (in other words, union campaigns will be counted towards ALP campaign caps);

* ban all political donations at all times to political parties and third parties from organisations (coming on top of an ban on donations from people not on the electoral roll – which of course includes permanent residents and citizens under 18).

The only advantage of this over-reach is that it will now almost certainly end up in the High Court. I’d be amazed if the unions did not challenge; while they are not certain of victory there is a viable argument on freedom of political communication grounds. And a victory on this point might curb the campaign finance excesses likely to eventually emerge from the Green-Labor control of the Senate.

Young women already at 40% higher education attainment

The government has a target of 40% of 25-34 year olds holding a bachelor degree or above by 2025. Data released by the ABS today shows that for women the target has already been met for 25-29 year olds. But men are lagging well behind on 30%.

However the gender gap is much smaller if vocational education qualifications are included:

Men with upper-level vocational qualifications do ok, which makes it less clear that there is a need to boost male university participation.

The weak case for a $1,000 political donation disclosure threshold

Reflecting the current orthodoxy on campaign finance policy, the Age yesterday editorialised in favour of the threshold for political donations disclosure being lowered from $11,500 to $1,000.

Despite the popularity of the $1,000 figure, I have never seen any real argument as to why that number is the right one. The Age said this:

For as long as this situation has been allowed to continue, and various donors are – for whatever reasons – free to conceal themselves from public scrutiny, democracy is under threat. Voters must be confident that political donations are not synonymous with covertly buying influence.

But could $11,500 plausibly buy influence? In 2010-11, a donation of that much was 0.000012% of the ALP’s income. I won’t strain your eyes any further by making you count how many decimal places would be needed to calculate a $5,000 or $2,000 donation as a percentage of the ALP’s total income. And the numbers would be even lower for the Liberals, who raised more money than Labor in 2010-11. The parties have incomes that are large enough, and diversified enough, for a single donor at this level not to be important.Read More »

Crikey group subscription

If you want to get Crikey, but don’t want to pay full price, Nick Gruen does an annual service in organising a group subscription. Details here, cross-posted from Club Troppo:

It’s on again folks. Crikey subscribers on the group subscription I organise have begun getting presubscription emails. Whether you are a subscriber already or not, you can subscribe through this means and qualify for the discounts Crikey offer.

Prices keep rising, and they’ve risen again this year. Here’s the schedule.

If you want to join the subscription, please email me on





you know the rest.

Then in a few weeks from now I’ll shoot a list of names and email addresses to Crikey and they’ll follow up.

Group Subscriptions

3-5 Members – $125

6-9 Members – $115

10-19 Members – $105

20-49 Members – $95

50+ Members – $85

The rise of GetUp!

The Australian Electoral Commission’s political donations and expenditure information for 2010-11 was released today.

For the second year running, business and industry groups outspent left-wing groups, putting more than $21 million into their campaigns (this is an under-count as at least one big-spending industry association has not put in the required report). When the Coalition introduced these laws 2006, the aim was to harass the left-wing third parties that traditionally were the main players. However, increasingly they affect the business community.

Two-thirds of the business and industry spending was an attack on cigarette plain packaging laws. There will be a lot more declared for 2011-12, as the carbon tax and pokies campaigns intensified.

Over the time these laws have been in place, the interesting trend has been the rise of GetUp!, which has increased its spending nine-fold since 2006-07.

The ideological/issue right is much less active than the ideological/issue left in political advertising. For 2010-11 the miscellaneous right-wing groups were the conservative Australian Christian Lobby and the National Civic Council. However, the IPA has taken out a few full-page ads in the last 6 months, so this will add a small-government ideological voice to this political tactic.