Liberals still trying to get at NGOs

Newbie Liberal MP Jamie Briggs is off to a bad start to his parliamentary career, continuing the Howard government’s anti-democratic attempts to use electoral law to get at its political enemies.

Briggs told The Age that:

with the Government’s recent release of a green paper on all aspects of electoral funding, “we must not just look at donations to political parties — reform must also cover the influence of third parties on elections”.

“If not addressed, heavily financed third-party campaigns will be like a growing cancer in our democracy.”

Though it does not provide a direct quotation, the paper reports Briggs as saying expenditure by third parties should probably be capped.

But I fail to see how people getting involved in politics can be a cancer on our democracy, unless they are aiming to overthrow our democracy, which clearly the groups that seem to pre-occupy Briggs – GetUp! and the ACTU – are not. All they are doing is opposing the Liberal Party, which may be frustrating and annoying to a Liberal MP, but is of no systemic concern.

My argument that even disclosing their political expenditure won’t make much difference and is just bureaucratic harassment seems to be indirectly supported by Briggs’ statement that:

“Australians are entitled to know who is behind the campaigns, how much is being spent and where the money is coming from.”

He hasn’t even noticed that they already provide this information, with another report due early February 2009. Last year’s was really not that interesting, telling us a) that political campaigns cost money and that b) left-wing persons and organisations provide that money to left-wing campaigns.

What GetUp! and the ACTU are doing in their campaigns is crystal clear from the campaigns themselves. They are in a very different situation to political parties, which may privately offer favours to donors.

Briggs’ attitude, plus conversations I have had with other Liberals, makes me worried about the Party’s response to the Rudd government’s green paper on election funding and regulation. I fear that they will agree to draconian restrictions on political freedoms in an attempt to control the left’s current political ascendancy. As with the Howard government in its later years, they are too concerned with short-term problems, and show too little interest in the systemic consequences of their actions.

15 thoughts on “Liberals still trying to get at NGOs

  1. Actually, I’d imagine that many of the parliamentary ALP share the view of the Liberal Party, as they too are threatened by what you termed “the left’s current political ascendancy” (and I’d add, if there is such a thing).

    You are absolutely right to ring the warning bells on the Green paper and the difference between rhetoric and regulation that will doubtless occur.

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  2. I think the biggest problem for democracy at present for the Liberal party (and often both parties at the state level) is the awful politicians that dish up essentially the same policies (and the constant use of cheap vote buying strategies leading to bigger and bigger government). I also think the same way as Dave Bath above — what ascendancy of the left are you talking about? It seems to me we stuck with centre right social conservatives versus slightly further to the right social conservatives.

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  3. Yep, its a strange definition of “left” that includes the current government.

    Perhaps what you really mean is that there is now an organised funding lobby for left-ish policies (GetUp!). Historically, of course, it’s the right that has done (and still does) this. As Galbraith said organisations that cater to the prejudices of rich old men will never want for funding.

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  4. I was using ‘left’ in the tribal sense; particularly at the state level I agree that left ideology is a minor influence on government.

    Activism is overwhelmingly left, lobbying is overwhelmingly self-interested. Right-wing issue politics is a relatively small force in Australia.

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  5. “Right-wing issue politics is a relatively small force in Australia”
    .
    I imagine that this is because (a) there isn’t much left to be active about if you are into right-wing issues, since you would already more or less get what you want from the government (hence I think it is a big force — it’s just that the government bats for that side, not lobby groups); and (b) there are almost no lobby groups that argue for less and not more (the CIS excluded) in places like Australia. I guess this aligns with your idea of self-interest, but I also think it’s generally harder to argue for not having something than for having something, especially in places like Australia where people think the government should do and be responsible for innumerate things, but don’t especially care about wastage.

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  6. conrad — what you say is perhaps reasonable as long as it is clear that the “right-wing” you are talking about has nothing to do with “free-market” policies.

    For people who believe in liberal democracy, the status quo is nowhere near what we want.

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  7. I agree completely John H — I’m talking about the right-wing as most people know it, not the now almost politically non-extant liberal right wing. In fact, I have great sympathy for you when you are trying to argue for less government rather than more, since I think it’s almost impossible in Australia, except in times when the government is going broke, and even then only economically, not socially.

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  8. It would be great if PR firms were required to disclose their clients and funding sources. They often participate in the democratic process without revealing on whose behalf they intervene – or even that they are acting. So they set up “astroturf” (fake grass roots) organisations on behalf of their corporate clients, or write letters to the editor and the like. As a lawyer myself I speak for clients – but everyone knows who my clients are. When the field of discourse is the democratic process itself, all the more reason for requiring full information.
    On a related issue, today’s Age has an article by the IPA decrying the value of political endeavour. The irony of having the IPA comment on this, when it has done so much to undermine the democratic process by not disclosing its funding origins and for whom it speaks, appears to have been lost on the Age.

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  9. The article in the Age does not decry the value of political endeavour – it states that some individuals would create more value for society if they remain in the private sector than pursuing a career in politics. This is a straight forward application of comparitive advantage.

    This whole nonsense about private organisations having to reveal funding sources is just piffle and constitutes an assult on the right to privacy.

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  10. Sinclair – don’t you think you should have revealed that you are associated with the IPA yourself?
    Revealing sources is just part of being open in our discussion in a democratic society.
    It has nothing to do with the right to privacy, which concerns protecting a private sphere of activity and creativity for the individual.
    If organisations seek to influence public opinion for profit then they should disclose who is paying. For non-profit organisations, of course the issues are different.

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  11. No. Everyone here knows who I am and my affiliations (or could find out with google). It’s not like I’m using a pseudonym or anything.

    If organisations seek to influence public opinion for profit then they should disclose who is paying.

    Why? That is simply a statement of your preferences.

    For non-profit organisations, of course the issues are different.

    Perhaps. But I haven’t heard any argument yet – also the IPA and other think-tanks are all non-profits.

    which concerns protecting a private sphere of activity and creativity for the individual

    including who they give their monry and for what purpose.

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  12. Andrew, your arguements are interesting, as this isn’t an angle I had thought of before. However, do you think there are not some cases where disclosure should be required.

    For example, at the last Tasmanian elections there was a lot of advertising done by a group called something like “Tasmanians for stable government”. The ads effectively said that if the Greens got the balance of power they would trash the economy. That’s a legitimate thing for people to say, even though naturally I don’t believe it.

    However, the Greens claimed the funders of this group were not people really concerned about the economy as a whole, but one big company with a specific interest in a particular law the Greens were opposing.

    I don’t know how true this claim was, but for the sake of arguement if it was true wouldn’t it be appropriate for that to be declared?

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  13. FS – It certainly raises a point made by those who want more deregulation, that the current system in which disclosure is typically made many months after an election does not deal with this kind of situation.

    On the other hand, direct election advertising – as opposed to what I am mainly concerned with, comment on issues – does have to have its authorisation simultaneously published, which means it should not be overly difficult to source an ad. The Greens certainly seem to have done so in this case.

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