Archive for the 'Democracy & elections' Category

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 »

Should government issue advertising be regulated?

Last week I gave a presentation to an electoral law workshop on the campaign finance law applying to ‘third parties’. My basic thesis was that the rules introduced in NSW and Queensland (discussed in my recent paper and this submission) are heavily biased against third parties, and in favour of political parties and the government of the day. In NSW and Queensland, third parties have much lower donations and expenditure caps than political parties. If the ALP submission to the current parliamentary review of campaign finance is a guide, the government will push for a similar regime federally.

Another area in which the law is biased against third parties is government advertising, such as the carbon tax ads launched at the weekend by the federal government. The federal rules have the following provisions: Read the rest of this entry »

Bureaucratic overkill on campaign finance law

NSW and Queensland have extremely complex campaign finance laws. I think the underlying assumptions – that we need regulation to limit ‘undue influence’ and to ensure the voices of the rich don’t drown out the voices of others – are dubious (explained in detail in my campaign finance paper, finally out today). But let’s grant them for the sake of argument. Is it necessary to have anything like the current campaign finance regimes to move towards these goals?

In NSW, three types of restrictions are imposed: bans on some donors, caps on all donors, and disclosure of all donors over $1,000. Queensland has capping and disclosure. All have their defects (see my paper). But many of them could be avoided if the regime was restricted to capping alone.

For example, even if there was a case for believing that some donors were intrinsically worse than others, if donations are capped at low levels – as they are, $5,000 to political parties, $2,000 to candidates and third parties – they can’t have much influence anyway. Bans are overkill, since the caps alone achieve almost all the original objective of diminishing the influence of groups deemed undesirable. And lifting the bans would save political parties and third parties from the time-consuming task of checking whether donors are legal or not. 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 »

Political parties are protecting themselves from the voters

My contribution to the CIS weekly email looks briefly at another aspect of the Queensland campaign finance reforms:

An expensive new public funding scheme will further benefit Labor. Under the system for previous elections, parties were paid according to the number of votes they received. For Queensland Labor, which apart from a brief post-floods boost, has been hovering around a 30% primary vote since mid-2010, pay-per-vote could be very costly. The new system will pay on a sliding scale according to how much parties spend. Regardless of their support, political parties can receive up to $5.3 million in public funding on a $1.8 million campaign investment of their own.

A party that contests all seats can spend $7.1 million. Provided they get at least 4% of the vote, for the first 10% of spending they get 100% reimbursement. For the next 80%, they get 75% reimbursement. And for the last 10% of the cap, they get 50% reimbursement.

Obviously this is much better for the ALP than getting paid per vote. But as the LNP pointed out in parliamentary debate, it is even better for Greens. I have not checked their sums, but in the parliamentary debate LNP members were claiming this could translate into $38 per Green vote, up from $1.64 under the previous pay-per-vote system.

Campaign finance reform is designed to insulate political parties from the political effects of their beliefs and actions – contrary to the previous system that made them accountable for their beliefs and actions.

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 »

Picking losers

Thanks to James Paterson’s piece last week in the Australian part of The Spectator, I am no longer the lone classical liberal publicly against campaign finance reform.* He notes of the terrible NSW reforms of 2010:

particular industries were singled out for bans, including tobacco, alcohol and gaming. This is in addition to bans on property developers. The list appears to have been drawn up to target businesses the Greens hate the most, so no one should be surprised if logging companies, miners and anyone selling fatty fast foods are added to the list in the future.

Instead of government picking winners, this is a case of government picking losers. The law is even worse than James says, since not all alcohol and gaming interests are banned from donations to political and third parties for NSW elections. It is just the for-profit alcohol and gaming sector, leaving Clubs NSW – long-term big donors – to carry on as before without pesky contrary influence from their commercial competitors. All campaign finance reform redistributes influence within the political class, but rarely is the playing favourites as blatant as this.

The O’Farrell goverment plans to ban all organisational donations – no companies, no unions, no NGOs. Essentially, this is a strike at the capacity of others to finance opposition to the government of the day. Any supporter of liberal democracy should be horrified.

* I temporarily forgot Chris Berg’s criticisms of campaign finance laws. Three people against the rest of the political class.

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 media gatekeepers vs free speech

Katharine Murphy’s Age column yesterday attacking big ad campaigns against government policy is the third such argument I have seen from journalists in the last six months or so. George Megalogenis made a similar argument in his Quarterly Essay (though for reasons I did not entirely follow, he thinks campaigns are ok after laws have been passed), and Peter Hartcher argued that ad campaigns threaten economic reform.

Murphy says:

We have a choice. We can either bump along and slide into a combative political environment where vested interests set the agenda, or we can stop, think and consider the alternatives.

Should there be full public funding for elections, ensuring that politics is left to the politicians? Should we require truth in political advertising?

Or should we do nothing, and wake up in a decade to find that politics can’t do anything; that politics is now solely about carving up the spoils, that reform has become impossible?

Though I strongly disagree with the Murphy’s views, she does more or less correctly describe what campaign finance reform is about. Its purpose and effect is to insulate the political class from the views of those who disagree with them or might challenge them. 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 »