If I am put in the dock for failing to disclose ‘political expenditure’ to the Australian Electoral Commission, it is comforting to know that every other editor in the country who published an article on the 2007 election will be there with me.
On Friday the AEC published the political expenditure returns (here, and a larger number here who submitted too late to be included in the database), and not a single newspaper or magazine has sent in its accounts. They must be banking on the AEC guidelines, rather than the strict letter of the law, applying to their ‘political expenditure’.
This legislation was set up as bureaucratic harassment of left-wing groups, and on that it has succeeded. Of the 49 political groups who have dislosed expenditure, 48 are left-wing. The one exception was ‘Friends of Indi’, a Liberal group that reported $14,263.42 in expenditure (pdf). Two pollsters also put in returns.
While I still believe that this provision of the Electoral Act should be repealed, the disclosures did generate media, and presumably public, interest (to be distinguished from the public interest, of course.) Melbourne’s ABC TV news led on Friday night with $20 million worth of union expenditure on their WorkChoices campaign. But of course the fact that unions spent huge amounts of money advertising against WorkChoices could only be news to people who exclusively watch the ABC, since it was unavoidable on all the commercial stations. (It’s a nice irony; right-wingers should have taken refuge from left-wing propaganda by switching to the ABC.)
GetUp! disclosed $555,000 in expenditure for 2006-07 (pdf). Their return highlights the complexity of calculating the amounts required by the legislation, with separate line items for campaign advertising, contractors and consultants, legal costs, postage and shipping, printing and stationery, research, salaries and wages, superannuation, telephone and internet, travel expenses, and website costs; some have 33% apportionments. There were many hours wasted calculating all that I expect.
GetUp! also had to disclose some of their donors. The ubiquitous multi-millionaire lefties Evan Thornley and his wife Tracey Ellery kicked in $85,000, but they were less generous than authors Susan Varga and Anne Coombs, who put in $90,000, $70,000 of which was for a David Hicks campaign. Deanne Weir – Google suggests she used to work for broadcaster AUSTAR – put in $25,000 and SJ Killelea (perhaps this guy) put in $70,000 to their Senate campaign. I’m curious to know who funds groups like GetUp!, but I don’t think these people should have to disclose their identities unless they consent.
The AEC election expenditure returns reveal no scandal except that the provision requiring it was passed in the first place.
For the Coalition, the disclosure provision will almost certainly end up being self-defeating. Sure, it did cause various leftist groups to waste time filling in forms. But most of them will have no political problem with disclosing the spending or donors; that they spend is obvious and most of the donors already have well-known political allegiances. But for potential right-wing donors facing coast-to-coast Labor governments disclosure is likely to an issue; as the very generous donations to the NSW ALP in particular indicate winning Labor’s favour is necessary to doing business there. With federal Labor threatening to slash the threshold for disclosure, even quite small donors will be caught in the law’s net.
Combined with the normal political donations data released at the same time, this AEC information confirms that the left in Australian politics can and does massively outspend the right. The Coalition’s short-sighted and misguided changes to the Electoral Act in 2006 risk making the imbalance even worse.