Banning political party donations

Since I last posted on political donations, the debate in NSW has escalated beyond disclosure to prohibition. The SMH was endorsing this route again yesterday. As usual, no serious consideration has been given to the likely consequences of such a move.

Arguably, in the Labor Party unelected party officials and conference delegates already have too much power over elected Labor MPs. They were trying again to exercise that influence at the NSW Labor conference yesterday. If ‘outsiders’ have less access to politicians, then the party insiders, in Labor’s case the unions, will have even greater relative influence. That is not to say that they will always get their way – politicians will usually be more concerned with the broader real-world and electoral implications of policy. But the insiders will proportionately get more of the decision-makers’ time.

But a ban on political donations won’t help political parties, even while it will help party power-brokers. Most of what parties do between elections is fundraising. Much of the social capital element of political parties would disappear without fundraisers. Already parties are suffering from not being able to give members enough to do, and this problem would worsen further if donations were banned. Parties would become quasi-state institutions, rather than being parts of civil society. Continue reading “Banning political party donations”

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?”

Free to know?

I recently experienced my own little frustration with getting information out of the government. I’m writing a CIS paper on private providers of higher education, and one of the arguments I planned to make was that the FEE-HELP provisions of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 are protectionist, in restricting access to the loans to institutions with their ‘central management and control’ in Australia.

In the course of doing various company searches on private higher education providers, I found that two of them with FEE-HELP access are foreign-owned. Perhaps ‘central management and control’ was being intepreted so broadly that it wasn’t as much of an issue as I thought. I needed to know how it was being defined.

I sent an email to the bureaucrat responsible for this area, asking her how it was defined. A couple of weeks later I received a one-line email from a Departmental media person informing me that ‘central management and control’ was not defined in the Act, ie telling me what I already knew and what had prompted the inquiry in the first place.

If the very useful Report of the Indpendent Audit into the State of Free Speech in Australia (big pdf, short html summaries here) is a guide, my experience is far from unusual. Continue reading “Free to know?”

An unintimidated academic

John Buchanan may live in fear of a Joe Hockey put-down. But not all academics are so shy of taking on politicians. Take Roger Short, a (gasp) Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. According to The Australian, this week he told undergraduate students that:

Australia’s population will increase (and global warming worsen), if Peter Costello gets in,” he said on Tuesday.

“The man’s a bloody idiot.” …

“We’re going to see massive growth in the world’s two most affluent and effluent nations (the US and Australia) on a per capita basis.”

China was unfairly singled out in the debate; its one-child law was the “most exciting policy” to confront climate change.

“Point the fingers of blame at the USA and – as a silly little me-too copycat – Australia.” ..

“It makes me want to tear up my Australian passport. We are a disgraceful country.”

In any case, climate change would redraw the map as rising sea levels flooded many of Indonesia’s islands, he said. “With thousands of islands there are thousands of boats and by the end of this century I think Australia will be part of Indonesia.”

Students might have hoped for some scientific explanation when Professor Short came to give a lecture. After all, they can hear climate change rants at much lower cost from their local Green candidates.

Academic freedom from speech

On the evening of Monday 1 October, Age journalist Michael Bachelard rang the office of Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey. The call was about a report neither Hockey nor his staff had seen, Australia@Work. Bachelard explained some findings on pay under AWAs. With a deadline approaching, Hockey’s office hurriedly produced a response they didn’t proofread. As Bachelard tells the story:

Twenty minutes later, the minister emailed an official response.

“This report is not credible. It is the same old flawed research from the same old union accedemics (sic). It contradicts far more reliable findings from the ABS. It has (sic) hardly surprising that acdemics (sic) such as John Buchanan and Brigid van Wanrooy, who has previously authored ACTU research, would come up with such a flawed report.”

The next morning, presumably still not having seen the report, but with the task of defending the government’s industrial relations policies, Hockey accused the report’s authors of being ‘former trade union officials who are parading as academics’, who had suddenly released an anti-WorkChoices report just before the election. ‘So you have to look to their motives’, he said. ‘This research is heavily influenced by academics who have done a lot of work for the trade union movement over a number of years.’

To most of us, it looks like just another round of the quick and cheap point-scoring we see every day in Australian politics. 70% of Labor’s front bench are former trade union officials parading as potential Ministers, aren’t they? It’s hard to take seriously.

At universities, however, it seems to be a very serious matter indeed. In The Australian yesterday, University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Gavin Brown was reported as saying:
Continue reading “Academic freedom from speech”

Guy Pearse’s high and dry argument

At the start of the month, I suggested that Guy Pearse, author of High and Dry, a critique of the Howard governmet’s climate change policies, use his wesbite’s ‘Clarifications and corrections’ page to correct the claim that Greg Lindsay had any responsibility for the government’s policies.

My argument was based on the facts that Lindsay has had nothing to say on the topic (which Pearse admits), and that the CIS had published only a handful of articles on climate change, and none for several years. It seemed to me to be a wildly implausible notion of ‘influence’, that all you have to do is print a few pieces and – hey presto! – the government adopts your policy. Strangely, given this theory of influence, my dozens of articles on higher education reform over more than seven years, not to mention my prior role as the actual Ministerial adviser on higher education, have failed to secure the desired outcome. Ditto many CIS policy suggestions on tax, welfare, and other subjects.

Now Pearse has responded to my post, and though he does, near the end, back-pedal a bit, it is mostly a flimsy exercise in guilt by association.
Continue reading “Guy Pearse’s high and dry argument”

Has public debate been corrupted?

If book buyers have a limit on how many ‘Howard’s suppressing free speech’ books they’ll add to their shelves, it’s a pity Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison’s Silencing Dissent reached the bookshops before David Marr’s His Master’s Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate Under Howard.

They cover similar ground (indeed, some of the same ground, with Marr citing the earlier book) and ultimately have similar problems, but Marr’s book is much the better of the two: whatever his faults, he writes well; and he retains a sense of perspective lacking in Hamilton and Maddison.

According to its editors, Silencing Dissent:

paint[s] a picture of Australian democracy in serious jeopardy….The longer term picture is even more worrying: authoritarianism can only flourish where democracy has been eroded.

But according to Marr:

For a decade now, public debate has been bullied and starved as if this was an ordinary function of government. It’s important not to exaggerate the result. Suppression is not systematic. … There are limits.

But, as with Silencing Dissent, it’s not clear that all the examples really tell us much about the state of public debate in Australia. Continue reading “Has public debate been corrupted?”

David Jones vs Clive Hamilton

Upmarket department store David Jones is taking the Australia Institute to court, accusing it of misleading or deceptive conduct for describing DJ’s advertising of children’s clothes as ‘corporate paedophilia’. According to the Australia Institute, the department store’s catalogue posed child models in sexually provocative ways, something David Jones denies strongly. Whatever the merits – or lack thereof – of David Jones’ claim there is some irony to be enjoyed here. In his 2005 book Affluenza Australia Institute Executive Director Clive Hamilton includes a ‘Political Manifesto for Well-being’ that declares:

‘advertising codes of conduct should be legislated so that irresponsible and deceptive marketing is outlawed’.

An adverse finding for Hamilton will see him punished by legislation he thinks should be strengthened and enforced much more vigorously. Be careful what you wish for…

Irony enjoyment aside, I think this is a regrettable action by David Jones. The best course of action here was a debate over the value of the Australia Institute’s claims, which indeed occurred last year. Clearly the Australia Institute was engaged in hyperbole (otherwise the DJ’s advertising people would be behind bars), but there were divided views over whether their advertising in question went too far or not. But if people didn’t like the advertising, nobody is forcing them to shop at DJ’s.

Given his persistent opposition to freedom of commercial speech it’s going to be hard for Hamilton to credibly play the free speech martyr. But perhaps this will be lesson to him in the virtues of not regulating speech via the courts. There are widely differing views about what constitutes acceptable speech, and this diversity has been dealt with via a mix of social norms as to what it is and is not acceptable to say and show, and helping people avoid what they don’t want to see or hear via ratings systems or self-help. Generally, censorship has been limited to extreme cases where there is little disagreement or clear harm flows from publication (though with exceptions such as vilification laws). If you think DJ’s catalogues are offensive, just put them straight into the bin (or the recycling bin, as Clive would insist). The alternatives – censorship or heavy-handed legal action – are worse than the original problem.

The climate change McCarthyists

Never in the history of think-tanks has a research proposal received so much publicity. Starting, so far as I can tell, in The Guardian, it spread through the world, including the front page of this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald. The problem (according to The Guardian):

Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world’s largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.
Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Travel expenses and additional payments were also offered.

Professor Q, who has joined the chorus of criticism, has also tracked down a copy of the original letter (pdf) the AEI sent to prospective authors.

It really is hard to see what the fuss is about. There is a political consensus that something needs to be done about climate change, not because we are necessarily 100% certain about the science, but because policymakers cannot do nothing in the face of potentially catastrophic risks. Few decisions are made with perfect information. But I cannot see that there is anything to be lost from continuing to hear from the sceptics, and that the sponsoring body once took some money from Exxon or has staff that once worked for Bush tells us little that is useful.

Like most of the right-wing think-tanks the AEI does not do hired gun research and does not get itself in the position of leftist NGOs of having a dominant funder that can influence their public statements. It only gets 17% of its annual funding from corporations, suggesting that the capacity of any one company to have an influence would be very limited even in theory, and probably near zero in practice.

As I have said in many posts, arguments stand or fall on their merits, and the claim that (as the AEI letter asserts) the IPCC process has biases or that the AEI has taken Exxon money alerts us to potential issues with each, but does not spare us the effort of actually listening to what they have to say. The AEI was not offering $10,000 for quick spin. It was offering $10,000 for 7,500- 10,000 words by December 2007. It’s hardly a huge sum for a long paper from an expert.

The charge of McCarthyism is terribly over-used, but launching such a prominent and widespread attack on research that hasn’t even been written is resonant of Senator McCarthy’s attacks on those he suspected – sometimes correctly, often not – of being communists.

Is dissent being silenced in Australia?

[Post restored from National Library archive]

If Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison are to be believed, the chapters of their edited collection Silencing Dissent: How the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate

paint a picture of Australian democracy in serious jeopardy….The longer term picture is even more worrying: authoritarianism can only flourish where democracy has been eroded.

As with the critics of political correctness claiming through the mass media that they were being censored by feminazis etc, this book suffers from a self-refuting quality – how silenced can be dissenters be if their book is released by a leading publisher and has lengthy extracts published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald?

And it is bad timing when a book claiming there is an ???overall strategy of silencing critics??? through ???personal vilification of experts who do not share the government???s views??? appears in the bookshops the same day as The Australian has on its front page a picture of a beaming John Howard congratulating Tim Flannery, a long-term critic of the government???s climate change policies, on becoming Australian of the Year. Flannery promised to keep up the criticism.

What to do with examples like these is the problem this book never resolves, and indeed barely realises that it has – how much weight to give the evidence that supports their hypothesis compared to the evidence that does not. For every instance they report where the Howard government may have been too heavy-handed there are countless counter-examples where things have gone according to text book democratic theory. Why take deviations from good practice as representing the underlying character of the government, rather than what routinely goes on most of the time? Aren’t we seeing here the difference between a journalistic and social science view of the world, with the former focusing on novelty and breaches of norms, and the latter focusing on identifying averages and distinguishing them from outliers?

I’m quite prepared to believe, as the book argues, that people like Senators Eric Abetz or Bill Heffernan sometimes over-step the mark in their criticism of the government???s opponents. Buy why focus on those two? Most Liberal MPs – including the PM – almost always refrain from trips to the gutter. ‘Vilification??? should be discouraged as unhelpful to debate, but who seriously believes that it can ever be eliminated – or that ???democracy??? is threatened by it? Most people with a public profile accept that some personal abuse is inevitable, and that they should just let it pass. Howard is the most criticised individual in Australia of the last decade, but clearly he does not let it get to him. Thin-skinned lefties could learn that from him, if nothing else.

In his chapter on universities, Stuart Macintyre recounts, under the heading ???restricting academic freedom???, the story of former Education Minister Brendan Nelson rejecting several Australian Research Council grants he did not like. My own view is that Nelson made the wrong call on this, but the fact remains that most ARC grants pass through the Minister???s office without comment and the universities still get block research funding which they spend on anything they like – including attacks on the Howard government.

In the chapter on NGOs – a summary of survey research which The Australia Institute published more than two years ago – most government-funded NGOs felt that their funding affected their capacity to comment on government policy. But the original survey paints a more complex picture: 58% said that their organisation’s key messages were ‘often critical’ of the government, most thought that over the last five and ten years they had been more successful in getting their message across, and only a fifth had any formal controls on what they could say. So most of them are engaged in public debate, including commentary critical of the government. Also, the chapter fails to give any examples of NGOs that had their funding cut in circumstances where their criticism of government was clearly a major factor (though I can think of at least one example of a de-funded body that provided no useful service and was only a critic).

In looking at how systems function, the rule counts for more than the exceptions. Contrary to what Maddison argues in her chapter, Western democracies are ‘robust’, because though there are always some ad hoc departures from democratic norms there are no significant groups that reject the fundamental principles of democracy. So while at any given time there are things that could be done better, the basic institutions work – people can have their say, can organise politically, can run for office, and can vote in elections. When they lose elections, governments vacate office without question. Nobody worries that the military might intervene.

The book, in its focus on government or government-funded institutions, misses the distinction between ’silencing’ someone (ie actually prohibiting them from expressing their views) and merely not funding them to criticise the government. It should be a vital distinction, and it has only lost some of its significance because government funding is so pervasive. As the liberal right has argued all along, even if there is not a ‘road to serfdom’ there is at least a tension between a big state and a free society. But for the left-wing contributors to this book, it is hard for them to accept that the things they support, big government and ‘dissent’, may not be fully compatible with each other.

Silencing Dissent also overlooks the positive things that have happened for public debate in the Howard years – mostly relating to the internet. This is the most important democratisation of knowledge ever. Lots of information, including very large quantities of government information, that was once difficult and expensive to acquire can now be located quickly and downloaded for free. Numerous political groups use the web to organise themselves. Just about any opinion can be found on the web, with attempts at censorship largely doomed to failure. This is is the easiest time in Australian history to ‘dissent’ – and all the more so if you sensibly refuse to take any government money.

Though Maddison and Hamilton dismiss the ‘cabal’ of Howard-government supporters associated with Quadrant, the IPA and the CIS who they think will ‘disparage the editors and contributors to this book as hysterical Howard haters’, the CIS’s rejection of government money has given it the freedom to publish hundreds of thousands of words critical of the government without fear of retribution. Unlike lefties in NGOs and universities, we haven’t sold our souls to the state.