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Rigging the campaign finance system

By Andrew Norton - posted Thursday, 26 May 2011

Last week, the Queensland Labor government rushed through radical changes to the state's campaign finance laws. In introducing the legislation, Deputy Premier Paul Lucas re-stated familiar high-minded arguments:

Our electoral system must be free from undue influence associated with large political donations ... Those with the means to make large donations should not be permitted to leverage more from the political process than everyday Queenslanders.

But in this instance, it is Labor and not large donors who are trying to gain leverage from the political process.


The $5,000 per year donations cap to political parties is clearly aimed at undermining the opposition Liberal National Party's fundraising capacity. The cap was backdated to 1 January 2011 to prevent LNP donors from building a big campaign fund before the reforms took effect. A campaign expenditure limit of $11.6 million will further thwart LNP spending plans. Non-government organisations will be restricted to just $500,000 in campaign spending.

An expensive new public funding scheme will further benefit Labor. Under the system for previous elections, parties were paid according to the number of votes they received. For Queensland Labor, which apart from a brief post-floods boost, has been hovering around a 30% primary vote since mid-2010, pay-per-vote could be very costly. The new system will pay on a sliding scale according to how much parties spend. Regardless of their support, political parties can receive up to $5.3 million in public funding on a $1.8 million campaign investment of their own.

Though advocates of campaign finance reform claim to be against undue influence, the rules target any external influence. Campaign finance law insulates governing parties from the political repercussions of their decisions. Opposition fundraising and spending is restricted, while public funding fills the gap left by reluctant government donors.

The federal government – whose polling also looks bad – has quietly announced a review of its campaign finance rules. The danger is that these cynical measures to support unpopular governments, which started in NSW and spread to Queensland, will soon reach Canberra.

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About the Author

Andrew Norton is a research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the CIS' Liberalising Learning research programme.

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