Archive for the 'Activism & activists' Category

Vested and public interests

Back in January, Wotif founder Graeme Wood attracted media attention for making the largest ever single donation to a political party, $1.6 million to the Greens:

Mr Wood said his donation was motivated by disappointment with Labor and Coalition policies on climate change and the environment.

“I didn’t think either of those parties were being effective,” he said. “They were being driven by people with vested interests.“(emphasis added)

But in an a story for the Weekend AFR (paywall) Wood says that he:

..saw the $1.6 million donation as a defensive move that saved him many millions of dollars.

“I was a bit concerned that if the Coalition got in a lot of my investments in environmental causes would have been down the plughole.”

Admittedly Wood’s environmental investments do not from this article seem highly oriented towards returning a profit. But what is a ‘vested’ interest and what a ‘public’ interest position is often not self-evident; those who face financial ruin from environmentalist causes would presumably see themselves as representing a public interest, and Wood’s desire to protect his investment in those causes as a vested interest.

The most disobeyed legislation on the Commonwealth statute books?

For the past couple of days, The Age has been going hard on the failure of a Liberal Party ‘associated entity’, Business First, to file its required disclosure forms. It was the lead story yesterday, and still on page one this morning.

The purpose of these laws is to reveal the identities of financial supporters of political parties. While Business First is undoubtedly in technical breach of the law, what The Age isn’t telling you is that it had no donors large enough to require disclosure. If they had followed the law, Business First’s AEC form would, like the vast majority of forms submitted to the AEC, have received no attention at all because it contains nothing of any interest.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act is probably the most disobeyed piece of legislation on the Commonwealth statute books. While this is mostly people avoiding their legal obligation to turn up to the polling booths, there is also widespread non-compliance with the paperwork required to be a political entity or a donor above the threshold. Read the rest of this entry »

Cracking down on dissent

Today’s media carries two stories about the increasing arrogance and authoritarianism of elements of the political class in dealing with people with contrary views.

In what looks to be linked to a quietly announced parliamentary review of campaign finance, Bob Brown has said that he will move to ban donations from tobacco companies. It’s a continuation of the ‘picking losers’ approach adopted in NSW. My nearly done campaign finance paper says of NSW:

It sets a dangerous precedent: governments legislating to reduce the political options of industries that it dislikes or sees as troublesome or unpopular. ‘Junk’ food manufacturers, retailers, and carbon-intensive industries are the obvious next candidates for such treatment. Rather than picking winners, government picks losers by using its power to politically disable organisations opposed to it and its allies.

Suggesting a very slow news day, The Age leads with a story that Crown casino has appointed former ALP secretary Karl Bitar as a lobbyist.

Populist senator Nick Xenophon was reported as saying Read the rest of this entry »

Strangling political activity with red tape

Just before I was about to finally get my campaign finance paper released, the Queensland ALP rammed through its campaign finance amendments to their electoral act – forcing many revisions. (The Parliamentary Library’s summary is the easiest way in, if you want the detail.)

But far worse than my inconvenience, of course, is that after the changes in NSW this is the second successful assault on political freedom in the last 12 months. The Queensland and NSW laws are generally quite similar in capping expenditure and donations, but with two main exceptions.

The first is that Queensland has largely avoided the particularly appalling NSW complete bans on donors. There is no singling out of disfavoured industries for bans, and while foreign-sourced donations to political parties are banned (as they already were), they have not followed NSW’s lead in banning all non-citizens from donating.

However Queensland is worse than NSW in its regulation of third parties. This is because they have combined NSW-style caps on donors and spending with the federal regime of disclosure. The result is extraordinarily complex – even by the red tape standards of campaign finance law. Read the rest of this entry »

When might big-spending campaigns work?

The commenters on yesterday’s campaign finance post think that big ad campaigns don’t always work. That’s certainly the finding of the US literature on this subject – not that money never makes a difference, but that it interacts with so many other factors that there is no stable or predictable relationship between political spending and political outcomes.

Generally speaking, I believe the chances of any campaign over-turning stable elements of public opinion in the short to medium term are very low. The Howard government’s propaganda campaign on WorkChoices was doomed because the unions could tap into deep elements of public opinion. The importance of the union campaign against WorkChoices wasn’t that it changed minds, but that it kept the issue in people’s minds until polling day.

The more interesting campaigns are on unfamiliar issues, where public opinion is to a certain extent up for grabs. The mining tax was an example of this. Given existing tax and spend polling the issue could have headed in several directions if it had continued – we are generally in a pro-tax part of the political cycle if consequent spending the public approves of is emphasised, but opinion is also highly sensitive to situations in which workers may lose their jobs. Another factor in the mining tax case was that the government advertising in response to the miners was terrible, an off-putting lecture that did not hit existing pro-tax intuitions. Read the rest of this entry »

The threats to political expenditure

The annual Australian Electoral Commission donations data dump was today, and I have collated the figures for the ‘political expenditure’ requirement.

The current rules were introduced by the Howard government in its lost-the-plot last term (I have extensively critiqued the law here). Their intention was to make life more difficult for left-wing ‘third parties’, and as can be seen from the table in most years left-wing organisations massively outspend right-wing organisations.

2009-10 was the first time since these disclosure rules came into effect that business groups outpsent the union movement. All of the declared spending of more than $22 million was by mining interests, presumably on opposing the planned mining ‘super-profits’ tax. Read the rest of this entry »

The folly of donations caps

I’m working on a CIS paper on political donations, so today’s lead Age story on the biggest ever donation to an Australian political party caught my eye. Wotif founder Graeme Wood gave the Greens $1.6 million.

Despite this, Greens leader Bob Brown is calling for donations to be capped at $1,000. Remarkably, he seems to understand that – like virtually all electoral ‘reforms’ – donations caps are attempts by existing political players to rig the system in their own favour:

‘”‘…the Greens are going to continue to get a disproportionate increase in funding,” he said.

“Maybe it will be that factor which will get one or other of the big parties to bring in restrictions on political donations.”

Exactly. As Bradley Smith argues in his book Unfree Speech: The Folly of Campaign Finance Reform, political newcomers often find it hard to raise money through small donations. They frequently lack the strong organisational base needed to tap into networks of many donors. Read the rest of this entry »

The economics of Christmas cards

Commenting on the inefficiency of Christmas gift giving is now almost as much a Christmas tradition as Santa and Christmas trees. The Australia Institute was at it again this year.

But the odd economics of Christmas cards has received less comment. It’s hard to buy cards without contributing to a cause, typically noted on the back of the card. The people who have sent me cards this year have supported: the Australian Red Cross, a British disability charity (promising that money from their cards helps disabled people express themselves through photography and other technology), the Make-A-Wish foundation, the Peter Mac Cancer Centre, the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation, the 1959 Group of Charities (26 charities listed), Kids Helpline and the Smith Family.

And even when you buy a card from a for-profit company there is no escaping your environmental obligations:’This card is made with recycled paper (20% recycled fiber)’, ‘This card is made with paper from sustainably managed forests’, and my favourite this year ‘it’s good to be green – this paper is 30% recycled, processed chlorine free and manufactured with wind energy’, though I suspect they did not use wind energy to transport it from Canada, where it was printed, to Melbourne, where I bought it.

Is all this part of a strategy to get us to pay $5 or more for a bit of card with printing costs of perhaps 50 cents? That we don’t mind paying far too much if we are contributing to a good cause or helping to save the environment? There are many other examples of bundling products with causes or charities – eg fair trade coffee, The Big Issue – but Christmas cards are a rare product line where bundling seems like the norm.

As my family solves the Christmas gift-giving inefficiency by buying from co-ordinated lists everyone has a pretty good idea of what they are going to get, so I want to buy a good card as it is the only real thought I put into the gift. If it’s clever or pretty (for female gift recipients; guys don’t do pretty) I don’t mind paying the price. But sometimes I’d like more of a choice just to buy the card, without the charity or cause.

A political culture of ‘consequence and retribution’

The Australian this morning reports Michael Chaney’s comment that ‘thin-skinned politicians’ are creating a culture of ‘consequence and retribution’ for businesspeople who speak out on policy.

Unfortunately he did not name names or give examples. These instances may not in reality be frequent. But the perception that the danger exists has a chilling effect on public debate.

It is one of the main reasons I oppose lowering the threshold for the disclosure of political donations. If we assume that politicians will favour their own donors, I think we must also assume that politicians will disfavour their opponents’ donors. The disclosure regime creates for the government a convenient list of opposition donors.

No wonder ‘thin-skinned’ Labor wants the current $11,500 threshold lowered to $1,000.
Update 8/10: PM denies intimidation.

Buying your say?

The SMH led yesterday with some prematurely released information about NSW political contributions.

This caught my eye:

A Nationals lunch also secured donations from the Stonewall Hotel and Arq nightclub, both in Darlinghurst. The venues, which contributed $1500 each, were initially on the government’s list of most violent venues but have been removed after recording a fall in the number of assaults.

I expect that representatives of a gay bar like the Stonewall and a nightclub like the Arq are not regulars at National Party events. Indeed, unlike the hotel association and casino operator they probably wouldn’t even get a formal meeting with Nationals MP and Coalition spokesperson for licenced premises George Souris. But presumably they could approach him at the lunch.

These functions are always presented as illegitimate sources of influence which ‘exclude’ people who cannot afford to spend $1,500 on a lunch. But another way of looking at it is that they give access to people who are not political insiders. I know from my experience as a political adviser that functions are places where ministers get to hear things they are not hearing through their official channels. For those whose power comes from influencing the information flow and appointments diary that isn’t always a good thing. But for the overall political process, I think it is.