Imagine for a moment that you’re the managing director of a mining company. You have a project that has met all the legal hurdles raised by the Government, however, now imagine your project is in jeopardy, an environmental activist group have been using litigation to delay your project in the courts, Leonardo DiCaprio has flown down in his private jet to condemn your destruction of the planet, and they are using crowdfunding to pay for advertising targeting your project. These same activists are actively supporting the election of anti-development candidate to political office. What do you do? Do you support an alternative candidate that shares your belief in the economic benefits of your project and is actively campaigning for it? I would. However, this is exactly the kind of expression of free speech Labor and the Greens have opportunistically proposed banning in the wake of the Sam Dastyari affair –along with some Coalition members too.
On discovering Dastyari was not their messiah but in fact a very naughty boy, the Labor party very effectively changed the national conversation from one senator’s questionable conduct, to political donations more generally. This conversation has very quickly devolved into an argument that we should defend democracy and political participation by banning non-individuals and foreigners from donating to political parties. While this seems all very high minded, it ultimately comes down to one group wanting to ban another group from financially supporting things they don’t like. Senator David Leyonhjelm amusingly issued a satirical joint statement on political donations:
Leaders of all political parties have today called for the banning of political donations of the kind they don’t get but other parties do.
‘The particular kinds of donations we don’t receive are morally repugnant.’ they all said simultaneously at a press conference on the High Moral Ground Lawns in Parliament House.
‘Today we announce our intention to put forward a Bill to ban those particular donations we don’t get, because that’s our way of showing we are both useful and morally superior.” they call said.
“If only the other parties were as ethical as we are.” they all concluded in unison.
This statement pretty much sums up the actual position being advocated by both Labor and the Greens. The Greens in particular claim democratic participation as one of their core values. Their actions and policy positions, however, show they support democratic participation that achieves their outcomes, and reject democratic participation that’s counter to their goals. They support the right of environmental and social welfare groups to donate to political parties, but not corporations. If a ban on political donations from environmental groups were proposed, the Greens would be rightfully outraged. Ultimately, much like donations from environmental groups, donations for corporations and trade unions are just individuals collectively advocating for their interests. What could be more democratic?
It’s not hard to see why the Greens in particular are supportive of banning donations from non-individuals. The kinds of campaigns they run tend to be grassroots campaigns that crowdsource donations. They find an ‘orange-bellied parrot’ that’s endangered by some project they don’t like, start a community action group, get the NIMBYs on board and their campaign is in full swing. The people who directly benefit from project are mostly the shareholders of the company backing the project. One way of those shareholders advocating for their position is by donating to a political party that supports their project. Equally trade unions just as legitimately support a political party that has favourable positions on industrial relations. There is nothing illegitimate about this. Nor would there be anything illegitimate about tobacco companies supporting a libertarian party that defends people’s right to smoke.
This basic freedom of non-individuals to advocate for causes via political donation was threatened in February 2012, when the New South Wales government amended the Electoral Funding Act, banning political donations from groups unless the donor is an individual enrolled to vote. This was later struck down by the High Court finding that ‘the laws are invalid because they burden the implied freedom of communication on governmental and political matters, contrary to the commonwealth constitution.’
However, in a more recent ruling the High Court has indicated that this implied freedom of communication on governmental and political matters is not absolute. This is concerning because the High Court cannot be relied upon to defend freedom of speech.
Ultimately, it’s up to us the citizens to defend free speech and prevent future governments from deciding who we can support. Bans on political donations cannot go unchallenged.
Any attempt to regulate who or what can donate to political parties will prove to be self-serving and a threat to democracy.