Universities might still be caught in the campaign finance net

A Commonwealth campaign finance bill introduced late last year was strongly opposed by the university and broader NGO sectors. Most organisations commenting on a federal political issues were going to have to report on their donations and implement  highly bureaucratic systems to prevent ‘foreign’ donations to political causes. The bill would also have affected think-tanks such as the Grattan Institute, where I work.

The bill’s overly broad definition of political activity — public expression of views on an issue in an election by any means and/or public expression of views on a political party, MP or candidate by any means — was a longstanding problem in the law. I wrote a paper about it nearly a decade ago. Compared to the existing rules, the bill slightly improved on the status quo by creating some exceptions, including expressing views solely for genuine academic purposes. But in practice, the new campaign finance regulations were likely to lead to a much worse state of affairs than now.

Under the old regime, the AEC did not enforce the letter of the law.  Only organisations engaged in traditional campaign activities ever complied, and nobody was punished for not submitting the required reports on political expenditure and donations. During debate over the government’s bill it became clear that many NGOs in technical breach of the current law had no idea that it existed. But now they know, and MYEFO gave the AEC extra funds to implement the government’s ‘electoral integrity reforms’. That money could be used to increase compliance.

After near-unanimous opposition to its original bill, the government released a draft revision for comment. This seems to have satisfied Universities Australia, but I am not convinced that, despite its improvements, that universities should support the bill in its current form. Read More »

Should international students lose political rights?

One of the biggest changes to Australia migration this century, and through it to Australian society, has been the rise of long-term residents without the rights created by permanent residence or citizenship.

International students make up a large proportion of these restricted-rights residents, with more than half a million in Australia this year. While most international students go home after finishing their studies or convert to permanent residence, some stay on successive temporary visas for ten or more years. Other large categories of restricted-rights residents include New Zealanders and people on temporary work visas.

The total number of residents with limited rights varies depending on which visa categories are counted, but more than 1.8 million people are in this category.

As well as having no or limited access to social security benefits, often insecure tenure in Australia, and no right to vote in elections, restricted-rights residents are caught up in recent moves against ‘foreign’ political donors.

In Victoria, the current campaign finance bill links the right to make a political donation to eligibility under Commonwealth social security legislation, adding to the disadvantages that legislation already creates. (There is a loophole, as entities with an ABN can donate, and you don’t need to be a permanent resident or citizen to get an ABN. So ‘foreigners’ can donate via their business interests but not otherwise.)

With a very low donations caps in the Victoria bill – only $4000 over the four year electoral cycle to a political party – nobody could have much influence via donations.  Even if ‘foreigners’ are a bad influence the problem would be already solved another way.

The Victorian legislation’s one redeeming feature is that it only applies in a limited context.  It covers donations for political expenditure with the dominant purpose of attempting to influence votes in Victorian elections. So other donations to political parties, and donations to third parties campaigning on issues rather than directly advocating a vote, would not be covered.

In practical terms, that means that international students could donate to campaigns on state issues that are important to them, such as crime and public transport concessions.

By contrast, the federal bill that would ban ‘foreign’ donations of $250 or more covers a very wide range of political activity. It covers any public expression of views on a political party or candidate, and any public expression of views on an issue that is, or could be, an election issue. As it is hard to know what could be an election issue, a cautious approach would read this as covering any potential political issue.Read More »

GetUp’s rise to be the biggest third party political spender

In a past life I wrote a reasonable amount about campaign finance law, particularly as it applied to third parties (organisations active in politics but not standing for office). My interest was sparked by a letter from the AEC suggesting that perhaps I should be making a disclosure. I have followed the issue since, but in less detail as higher education issues consumed more of my time.

Third parties need to disclose their spending on various political activities. As with donations generally, 2014-15 was a low-spending year, as seen in the chart below.

Pol expenditure trends

The main item of interest in recent years is how GetUp has rapidly increased its spending, from $3 million in 2012-13 to $10.5 million in 2014-15. On its own, it was responsible for more than 70 per cent of all the declared political expenditure for 2014-15. As can be seen in the chart below, unions and business groups are traditionally the biggest spenders. Business and union groups spend when they need to; their main purpose is not campaigning to the general public. GetUp’s purpose is campaigning, and it needs to keep finding issues that motivate its donors. So we should expect it to be among the consistent big spenders.

Donor groups

The year of education-related third-party expenditure

The annual third-party political expenditure disclosures were put on the Australian Electoral Commission website today. I’ve updated my spreadsheet tracking spending by broad source, below.

pol exend 06-13

After three years of business outspending unions, the unions are just back in front. However both categories hide that 2012-13 was the year of education campaigns. The biggest single spend was $6.2 million by the Australian Education Union. The second-biggest spend was $4.8 million by Universities Australia. Adding in some other smaller campaigns, 47% of third-party political expenditure for 2012-13 was on education-related issues.

As the previous government raided the higher education budget to fund schools, it looks like the AEU had the better return on investment, if you believe that these campaigns make a difference.

Will the new Climate Council be pursued under campaign finance law?

The new not-for-profit Climate Council, set up to replace the now-abolished taxpayer funded Climate Commission, has had a successful launch. According to The Age, it has received $900,000 in donations in its first week.

But like other new political organisations, they seem blissfully unaware that campaign finance law means red tape for political activists.

According to The Age article, the “new body was yet to decide if it would disclose the identity of large donors.” That’s reflected in their donations page, which has no warning that large donations might be disclosed.

But the Climate Council could well be obliged to disclose donations over $12,400 under federal law.

The third party disclosure rules are triggered by, among other things, spending more than $12,400 (same figure as the donations) on “public expression of views on an issue in an election by any means”. Normally this provision has serious rule of law issues: activists have to know this year what the issues will be in the 2016 election. But in this case we can be pretty confident that climate change will be an issue in the 2016 election.

In practice, the main uncertainty for the Climate Council will be whether the AEC decides to enforce the rules. In practice they have largely ignored academic forms of activism coming from universities and think-tanks. Only campaigining organisations using paid advertising have been disclosing their political expenditure and donations.

On the other hand, the current rules were put in place by the Howard government in a quite open attempt to harass their political opponents, as I documented in this 2009 paper. Perhaps this original intent will be pursued under the Abbott government. But perhaps the party’s general commitment to free speech after the various attempts to curtail it under Labor, will make them think twice before they do.

What does the public think about campaign finance law?

This week’s Essential Report has some rare polling on campaign finance issues.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the negative reaction to last month’s plan for ‘administrative’ funding, support for public funding is at less than 30%:

donations versus public funding

But surprisingly to me, most voters who offered a view on the disclosure threshold opted for $5,000 or above. I was expecting a populist response and a low threshold.

Donation threshold

And most voters prefer a cap to unlimited donations, but no question on how much.

Donation capping

Except for the capping question, public opinion on this subject is more ‘liberal’ than I would have anticipated.

The Wikileaks Party’s actual and potential problems with campaign finance laws

The Age this morning reported that Julian Assange had been prevented by the Bank of America from directly donating to his own Wikileaks Party.

Assange asked that the $25,000 award [from Yoko Ono] be sent to the WikiLeaks Party, a separate legal entity to WikiLeaks. However, in April Ms Ono’s office said the Bank of America had refused to wire the money to the party’s account. …The Bank of America is one of a number of major financial institutions including Visa, American Express, Mastercard and Western Union that since December 2010 have refused to transfer funds to WikiLeaks.

But if the Labor campaign finance bill still before the Senate passes, Assange’s problem won’t just be the Bank of America. The Wikileaks Party would not be able to receive any foreign-sourced donation. Unless Assange still has an Australian bank account, he would not be able to donate his own money either.

Preventing ‘foreigners’ from expressing their views on Australian politics is bad enough. But preventing Australians, even candidates, from donating is an indefensible constraint on political freedom.

——–

Until writing this post I had not checked out the Wikileaks Party website. Its donations page advises that:

Presently donations to the WikiLeaks Party are anonymous unless otherwise requested

Unfortunately, that’s wrong. Until their registration as a political party is confirmed they are a ‘third party’, and must disclose donations over $12,100 (unless Labor’s bill gets through, in which case it will be donations over $1,000).