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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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%:
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.
And most voters prefer a cap to unlimited donations, but no question on how much.
Except for the capping question, public opinion on this subject is more ‘liberal’ than I would have anticipated.
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).
The plan by the main political parties to award themselves large amounts of taxpayers’ money showed such naked self-interest that the public awoke from its general indifference to campaign finance law, and forced the Liberals to withdraw their support.
But there was an underlying political logic behind the Liberal position. They were trying deal with a bill to lower the donation disclosure threshold from $12,000 to $1,000 that has already passed the House of Representatives and could still pass the Senate before the election. They feared that this would have a disproportionate effect on their supporters, who for social, employment, business or political reasons don’t want their names appearing on the AEC website. Labor’s main financial backers, the unions, are obviously quite open about their support.
Labor’s problem is less that their supporters don’t want their names disclosed than that too few people want to give them money under any circumstances. Hence their plan for so-called ‘administrative funding’ to finance them year-to-year. They offered the Liberals a higher disclosure threshold in exchange for this taxpayer-financed bail-out. The deal was done, but has now been broken.
Now Julia Gillard is threatening to go back to the original bill. I wrote a lengthy critique of it back in 2011. Around that time I also wrote op-eds that more briefly explain some of the issues:
* why the idea that a $1,000 threshold is needed to stop undue influence is ridiculous; the only plausible purpose of such a law is to deter donors;
* the xenophobic attempts to restrict the influence of ‘foreigners’;
* and the unjustifiable measures to harass NGOs.
There is almost nothing to be said in favour of this bill, and it would be sad day for Australian democracy if it is passed.
I had hoped that Labor’s long-stalled campaign finance reforms would be left behind in the rush of legislation before the election. But that has proved to be an over-optimistic view, and media reports this morning suggest that they have done a deal with the Coalition to get an amended version of the legislation through.
Essentially, it looks like the parties are awarding themselves more public funding and reducing the donations disclosure threshold from $12,100 to $5,000. Labor had wanted to lower the disclosure threshold to $1,000. While I don’t think there is any need to change the disclosure threshold, $5,000 is certainly a lot better than $1,000.
Apart from the problems around disclosure, the threshold is (for no obvious reason) used for other purposes in the legislation, such as the total amount of spending required for third parties to have to enter the campaign finance system. If they spend more than the threshold, they face complex reporting requirements.
Here I think $5,000 is too low, even on the arguments put by advocates of tighter campaign finance laws. Small-scale activism leading to a $5,000 spend on election issues poses no plausible threat to the integrity of government or to political fairness. To the contrary, having the AEC harass minor activists reduces political fairness.