Should the government’s critics be accountable to it?

I was rather surprised this week to receive a letter, in my capacity as editor of Policy, from the ‘Chief Legal Officer’ of the Australian Electoral Commission. Had I forgotten to vote? No, but it seems I may have ‘failed to focus’ on meeting my obligations under section 314AEB of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

Indeed, until I came to write my criticisms of Brian Loughnane’s National Press Club speech last month, I had no idea that this provision existed, and even then I did not grasp its full implications.

Section 314AEB requires that any person or organisation spending more than $10,300 in a financial year on ‘political expenditure’ – including expressing views on a political party or candidate, or on an election issue, or on an opinion poll asking about voting intentions – has to report that to the AEC. If that spending threshold is crossed, there are also disclosure requirements on ‘gifts received for political expenditure’.

The AEC has done its best to interpret this as narrowly as possible – whether out of democratic concern or merely a desire to avoid being buried in paperwork I don’t know. The ‘primary or dominant’ purpose of the expression has to be of the kind covered in the Act. So a political or policy opinion piece in a newspaper would be part of their normal activity and not covered, but the publication of the same piece on a website intended to influence the election would be covered. And the issue has to be one ‘likely to affect the outcome of the election’, and not just any issue.

Where there is no public money involved, I don’t see what public interest rationale there could be for requiring such disclosure. Continue reading “Should the government’s critics be accountable to it?”