Tension as Labor bucks campaign cash changes

ELECTIONS should not be won or lost according to who can put most money into a party, a candidate or into persuasive advertising. The “electioneering arms race” is out of control and it is time to confront the issue.

The Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety, chaired by Liberal Vicki Dunne, has delivered a thorough and thoughtful analysis of the issues that confront the ACT.

“A Review of Campaign Financing Laws in the ACT” includes a dissenting report from Labor’s John Hargreaves, which assists in providing an insight into the tensions around this issue.

The report examines recent reforms in places such as the Republic of Ireland and Canada as well as NSW and Queensland, which have adopted measures to combat the disproportionate influence that financial contributions bring to the political arena.

The committee has adopted a sensible approach by creating, as its main focus, limitations on the amount of money that can be expended in a campaign.

It recommends: “That electoral expenditure by political parties, their candidates and their associated entities should be limited to $60,000 per nominated candidate within the capped expenditure period, which shall commence on January 1 in an election year and close at the end of polling day.”

It also suggested donations to political parties, candidates or third parties be limited to $7000 in any financial year.

There is an alternative suggestion for adequate funding. It is an increased taxpayers’ contribution at a level proportionally in line with 85 per cent of funding provided to Senators by the election after next.

It is never popular to use taxpayers’ money to support campaigning. However, it is the current practice across Australia and the level should be adjusted to take into account the other recommended restrictions. It is a small price to pay for an effective democratic system.

John Hargreaves in his dissenting report raises the issue that “donation caps will create a preference for pressure groups over party politics as they will strongly encourage political groups to engage in independent third-party activity.” He suggests they “may favour issue politics over broader and more inclusive forms of politics.”

The committee recommends a cap of $30,000 on expenditure by third parties to address the issue. However, even if this cap is implemented, Hargreaves might be shown to be right and further restrictions will then need to be considered following the October 2012 election.

Such reports rarely escape a political stoush. The Greens are the recipient of the largest-ever political donation in Australian history.
The Liberal Party accepts donations from big tobacco (although Vicki Dunne seemed for some reason unable to confirm this on ABC radio following the release of the report). ACT Labor accepts very large sums of money from community clubs that earn the bulk of their revenue through gambling.

John Hargreaves expressed his partisan concern that the report is aimed at the Labor Party. He argued: “If these recommendations on donations are accepted, donations will be capped to the intended detriment of one party (Labor) and yet revenue from return on assets through, for example rental property, will not be capped, to the advantage of another (Liberal) party.” He is concerned in contrast that the revenue from rental property of the Liberal Party will not be affected.

For a long time Labor has been supported by gambling. It cannot be dressed up as donations from “a community club” in the way that John Hargreaves attempts. Labor does not want to lose the financial advantage it has always had in the ACT, but there are higher-order issues.

The system needs reforming now, before it really gets out of hand and our democratic systems are further undermined.

Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government.

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