Should political activity be further regulated?

In his speech to the National Press Club yesterday, Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane said this about the role of the ACTU and GetUp! in the campaign:

The ACTU spent over $14 million on television advertising in the twelve months before election day. This was more than either of the two major parties spent on television in the campaign…

For the first time in our history, a third external force has intervened in our political process with resources greater than either of the major political parties. I believe this is an extremely unhealthy development. If disclosure of campaign spending is to mean anything in this country, the ACTU should be required to publish a report setting out details of how the $30 million it allocated to the campaign was spent.

…The intervention of GetUp! in the campaign is another example of this phenomenon. GetUp! was well resourced and has strong international connections. It is perfectly entitled to play in the game, but it should also be subject to proper levels of scrutiny.

Actually, direct election campaign spending by the ACTU and GetUp! will have to be disclosed, and GetUp! also warns donors that their identities may be disclosed. Loughnane seems to be suggesting that these rules go even further and apply to spending outside of election campaigns.

This would be a highly undesirable development. As I argued in defence of undisclosed political donations, when government has at least partly politicised so many spheres of life some people feel that that they do not want their names attached to political activity. Donations are a way they can get involved politically without fearing repercussions from those in power.

I am prepared to accept disclosure on big donations to political parties because of the potential for bribery, but it is hard to see how this consideration could apply to organisations that lack any direct control over government decision-making.

As for itemising and publishing campaign expenditure, it is hard to see why there is any genuine public interest consideration justifying its forced reporting to the AEC. While not as bad as donations disclosure, it seems like just another unncessary bureaucratic impost, creating added compliance costs for political organisations and requiring more public servants to administer. It also risks raising the barriers to entry into the political market, favouring existing players with the capacity to deal with complex bureaucratic requirements.

For the Liberals, Loughnane’s suggestions seem particularly ill-timed. As we settle into a likely long era of Labor rule, it is Liberal and potential Liberal supporters who would be most adversely affected by further regulation of political activity.

11 thoughts on “Should political activity be further regulated?

  1. Getup! is an impressive and effective organisation, run by very smart people. Lots of people talk about using the internet as their key organisational device. But it’s easier said than done. Getup! succeeds. I see also that former ANZ CEO Don Mercer is on their board.

    Looughnane just has the shits that their is no right wing equivalent. Tough.

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  2. Spiros – It’s what they are effective at that still has me a little puzzled. As I said when they started their focus is exclusively on issues that are already orthodoxy among ‘progressive’ types. That makes more sense for the US model they are copying (MoveOn), where there is a need to get supporters out during elections. Here, it is done for them by compulsory voting. It’s all slickly done, but as I said two years ago I suspect it is more about satisfying a demand for low-effort political statement than shifting opinion more broadly.

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  3. Andrew, you may be right, but Loughnane thinks they were effective, and he should know.

    The challenge will for Getup! now will be how they position themselves now the Labor Party is in government. I predict they will build bridges with the socially liberal Liberals.

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  4. I notice Brian Loughnane very conviniently left out the funding of advertisements by the business lobby in favour of Workchoices.

    He gave a very very one-eyed view of the election campaign, which I guess is nothing more than you can expect.

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  5. Spiros – I think the ACTU campaign was probably effective against the Liberals in raising the salience of IR, an issue which affects some potential Liberal voters. I’m open to argument that GetUp! was electorally relevant, but I can’t see the causal mechanism at this point. They did some IR campaigning, but it would easily have been lost against the serious money ACTU effort.

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  6. Andrew, another interesting post.

    The Liberal High Command has totally underestimated GetUp! and I think you are doing the same, albeit to a lesser degree.

    A low-level political statement does not involve TV ad campaigns, over 200,000 members on their email list and dedicated fundraising.

    They’ve already had a post-election campaign strategy event and given that the Federal Director at the Liberal Party is clearly concerned enough to talk regulatory changes, I think their significance is clear.

    Until the Liberal/National side of politics moves beyond web 0.5, they are going to be left further behind in a campaign sense in the years ahead.

    Spiros makes a very good point however about what they will now do. It’s interesting that they decided to abandon David Hicks…now that Labor is in government.

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  7. So how far does Loughnane want to take this? I’m sure he does not want to extend this oversight to right wing shock jocks like Alan Jones, and the very shrill right wing journalists like Ackerman and Albrechtsen? I’m sure their long term and considerable contribution to the Howard government and to Howard himself would count for a lot, especially that of Alan Jones who is said to garner large support for the right in NSW.

    So I guess I’m asking what out of election third party support does the Liberal party want tied up in oversight or scrutiny?

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  8. Oh and I forgot, Loughnane neatly avoided mentioning the estimated two hundred million of tax payers money Howard spent on party political advertising disguised as government information campaigns. That advertising at our expense far outstripped all other contributions combined.

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  9. Adrian – The spending on government information campaigns is disclosed; I can see the point of this due to taxpayers’ funds being involved. But what will disclosure on GetUp! show? That they spend money on political campaigns, as intended by their donors. And that the ACTU spends money on campaigns favoured by the unions that finance them. Complusory disclosure seems pointless in these cases; or at least only a matter for their internal governance with no public policy issues involved.

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  10. I supposed the call for spending disclosure is to use it as a hammer, just as Labor successfully (and rightfully) used the cost of government advertising disguised as information as a hammer against the Howard government.

    The Coalition in opposition, without being able to call on funding instruments like Trade Unions and GetUp!, can cry poor and foul at the private money being used against them, money they cannot match. Playing the old underdog thing I guess.

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