Political xenophobia

The SMH this weekend devoted a large article in its news review section to profiling Chinese businessman (but Australian citizen) Chau Chak Wing, Australia’s largest ‘foreign’ donor to our political parties over the last decade (not online, but there was also this news story).

They claim that ‘unease about foreign donations is growing’, but that legislation to ban them is stalled in the Senate.

I’ve recently been looking at this issue from the perspective of NGOs, because this bill would also ban foreign-sourced donations to NGOs if the money was to finance political expenditure such as expressing views on candidates, parties, or election issues. My draft paper says:

Most major social, environmental and economic reforms and Australia over the last few decades are local versions of changes also occurring in other Western countries. Why assume that foreigners seeking to seed or support political activity in Australia will detract from Australian democracy, rather than adding interesting or useful ideas to local debate? ‘Made in Australia’ is no more a guarantee of quality in politics than in any other field.

If it passes, this legislation could make things very difficult for international NGOs like Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund.

Apart from being (in my view) unjustifiable in itself, the law as proposed would have very selective operation. It’s not actually a ban on foreigners donating money, just on the money coming from a foreign source. So Australians would be banned if they used a foreign bank account (say an expatriate wanting to support a cause at home), while a foreigner could donate if he or she had an account in Australia, as most foreign residents of Australian or foreign businesspeople operating in Australia would do. These laws would not stop Chau Chak Wing, since he has a few businesses in Australia and several members of his family live here.

It also applies only to donations (or ‘gifts’, in the legislation), so provided a commercial transaction could be generated there would be no legal obstacle to money changing hands. So a company could pay a NGO to promote its commercial interests (say an ‘astroturf’ organsation), but an altruist would be banned.

A jail sentence of up to a year for taking foreign money to finance expenditure on otherwise legal political activity is a punishment that seems wildly excessive for a harm that is, so far as I can see, non-existent except in the minds of people who take a very parochial ‘made in Australia’ view of politics. It is political xenophobia.

The Senate has already rejected this disgraceful attack on political freedom once. I can only hope they will do so again.

9 Responses to “Political xenophobia

  • 1
    Alan
    July 6th, 2009 01:05

    Issues of poor drafting aside, it seems to me that the idea of restricting the ability of foreign nationals to influence the outcomes of Australian elections through their donations to political parties and candidates is consistent with the principle that only Australian nationals are eligible to stand for election and to vote.

  • 2
    Sinclair Davidson
    July 6th, 2009 05:54

    So a company could pay a NGO to promote its commercial interests (say an ‘astroturf’ organsation), but an altruist would be banned.

    Contrast the position of the Grattan Intitute where the Rudd government pays a ‘NGO’ to promote its ideological interests.

  • 3
    Andrew Norton
    July 6th, 2009 07:40

    Alan – I think the problem is deeper than just poor drafting. If the ban is on foreign nationals, what about the large numbers of people living in Australia who are not Australian nationals? Permanent residents have many welfare rights, but can’t vote. There are several hundred thousand more foreign nationals on long-term but temporary student or work visas. Are they to lose all political rights? I think that is untenable, equivalent to saying (for example) that Indian students should just take their bashings and not protest. If they have some political rights, why not include donations to political parties?

    I take the view that we should have a strong default position in favour of freedom, and only restrict it when there is some very powerful public policy reason. So far as I can see the attempts to dig up dirt on the small number of declared foreign donors has been unsuccessful, and in in the case of Chau Chak Wing highlighted the complexity of the issue – though he does most of his business in China he is an Australian citizen and has a family in Sydney, and so surely has every right to get involved in Australian politics.

  • 4
    conrad
    July 6th, 2009 08:02

    Wasn’t the guy an Australian citizen also? It seems to me this really is xenophobia. In case you have slanty eyes and donate, you’re obviously corrupt (just like that case a few months ago). In case you’re Kerry Packer, you must be fine.

  • 5
    conrad
    July 6th, 2009 08:03

    Sorry, I just missed the last bit of your comment. Obviously he was an Australian citizen.

  • 6
    Andrew Norton
    July 6th, 2009 08:37

    Unfortunately, the starting assumption is that everyone who donates is corrupt, slanty eyed or not. In fairness to the SMH, though I think they started out looking for dirt they could not find any and on balance it ended up a positive article.

  • 7
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » What’s wrong with Taiwanese political donations?
    July 26th, 2009 13:28

    […] also intersects with the issue of foreign donations, which the federal government is seeking to ban. In my CIS paper due out on Thursday, I argue against the assumption that foreigners seeking to […]

  • 8
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » The partisan self-interest behind political donations regulation
    July 31st, 2009 12:06

    […] donations. But one of the great ironies is that while attempts to show improper influence by donors almost always fail, there is one clear prima facie case of the parties being corrupted by donations considerations: the […]

  • 9
    Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » Political xenophobia 2
    August 4th, 2009 12:50

    […] referee for my political expenditure laws paper pointed out that – contrary to the title of an earlier post – that someone doesn’t have to be a xenophobe to have theoretical concerns about foreign […]