How should we deal with union political power?

Earlier in the week, an Age report suggested that negotiations between the parties on political donations and funding laws had broken down over the issue of union affiliation fees to the ALP. The Liberal spokesman on this issue, Senator Michael Ronaldson, was reported as saying:

”It is increasingly clear that the level of union influence means that the reforms are all but dead in the water. And this is a great tragedy for this country.”

But in an Age op-ed Joo-Cheong Tham argues that union affiliation fees to political parties should be exempted from controls on political funding.

A distinction can be made, as he does, between individual or group membership of a political party – implying some general commitment to it – and ad hoc donations. But if the concern is avoiding the threats to ‘integrity’ when ‘holders of public office give undue weight to the interests of their financiers’ (Joo-Cheong’s words), it is not clear that this distinction is a difference that counts in favour of exempting union payments.

After all, which is worse – systematic and blatant undue weight being given to the views of a ‘member’ group or occasional influence from an ad hoc donor revealed once or twice a year in AEC declarations? The modern Liberal Party was expressly founded on an individual membership model to minimise the chances that business would have systematic control over the party. An important way of avoiding corrupting influences is to never have a financier you can’t afford to lose. The Liberals are in that position; Labor is not.

As a liberal democrat, I believe interest groups are entitled to try to influence the political process. I would be appalled if union affiliation fees were banned. But I also think union influence on the ALP is a strong reason never to vote Labor. The ALP has long paid a price for its union links – many ‘Deakinite’ Liberals were/are essentially social democrats turned off Labor by its organisational structure. The ALP know this but have always made the judgment that it is a price worth paying.

I very much doubt that we can construct any rules to prejudge the issue of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable influence on the political process. It can only be done through an on-going, evolving process of political judgment, temporarily and partially settled by election outcomes.

We only get to the distinction without a relevant difference that Joo-Cheong is trying to make because we are trying to prejudge the issue of influence. Controls on donations to political parties inevitably raise the issue of membership fees, and of ‘third party’ political activities. This leads to the kind of arbitrary, bureaucratic, and anti-democratic mess we already have in electoral legislation, which is only likely to get worse if any further controls are introduced.

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