International students should be able to make political donations

Late last year, the federal government introduced a bill to prohibit foreign political donors. It would have strangled charity and NGO political activity with red tape. After a strong backlash, earlier this month the government introduced a revised bill, with a substantially reduced, although still significant, level of donor-checking bureaucracy. Labor is backing the bill.

While the government’s amendments reduce the burdens on NGOs, they are more draconian for foreign donors. In the bill’s original version, all donations below $250 were deemed allowable. In the current version, foreign donors are completely banned from donating for Commonwealth electoral expenditure. This includes donations to political parties and to NGOs when their political advocacy might influence voting in a federal election.

While NGOs won’t need any anti-foreigner measures on donations below $100, a foreign donor could, in theory, be fined up $42,000 for making such a donation. NGOs would not be legally obliged to warn small donors of these potential consequences.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 »