An increase in anonymous donations to political parties can’t be good for democracy. But that is what could well happen in the New Year if Prime Minister John Howard can muster the numbers in the Senate.
If the Electoral and Referendum Amendment (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Bill becomes law it will be easier for Liberal supporters to donate to political parties but harder for those on the left side of politics to do the same.
For the big political parties fund raising for election advertising is the key to electoral success. The party that raises the most money, wins. So it is not surprising that the Liberals have come forward with these far-reaching changes that will make it much harder for Australians to ascertain who wields political influence via their funding generosity.
When Special Minister of State Eric Abetz first floated the Coalition’s electoral agenda earlier this year, his suggestion was to change the threshold for the declaration of contributions from the current $1,500 to $5,000. But before the Bill made it into parliament the Coalition decided to further lift the threshold to ensure that all donations under $10,000 should remain anonymous.
Why this change was made has never been revealed but what is obvious is that it will suit corporate donors and the Coalition parties.
An examination of donations to the NSW division of the Liberal Party in 2003-04 reveals that if the threshold for declaring contributions is $10,000, then 65 per cent of the money would have been from unknown donors.
You would have to assume that the amount of anonymous donations would have been even higher than this, if people had known beforehand that they did not have to reveal their generosity.
Howard and Abetz argue that their proposals are about protecting the “legitimate rights” of individuals and companies to privacy. But the real motive is not privacy, but secrecy.
While the so-called Electoral Integrity Bill makes it easier for the corporate world to give to their favourite political party, unions and some community groups will be heavily regulated if they choose to donate.
If the Bill were passed a number of groups that lie on the progressive side of politics would become “associated entities” and so be required to follow bureaucratic procedures not relevant to their day-to-day work.
The non-governmental organisations that could be caught up in this new provision include unions and environment groups.
Under the current electoral law associated entities are organisations controlled by, or operating to a significant extent for the benefit of, a registered political party. The groups that would be caught under the new definition clearly have a much broader function than associated entities. Only a small amount of their work involves election campaigning.
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