Recent amendments to the NSW Election Funding and Disclosures Act contained a number of positive changes, including caps on election expenditure, bans on donations from certain companies such as those in the alcohol and tobacco industries, and strict limits on the amount that can be donated to parties and candidates.
However, the provision that allows large spending by third-party campaigners is a weak link that could mean influential groups are able to bring their money to bear on the election outcome.
These third parties basically are organisations that spend money in order to push for certain policies during an election. Such organisations include social action groups, unions, business lobby organisations and various religious bodies. Money can be spent on anything from advertising and leaflets to props like the "NSW Deserves Better Bus" currently being driven around the state by the NSW Business Chamber.
Under the new electoral law, if such groups registered with the NSW Election Funding Authority (EFA) before the beginning of this year they are able to spend up to $1.05 million on campaigns during the upcoming NSW election. If they register this year, their spending is capped at the still substantial amount of $525,000.
This means that a third party that registered by 31 December 2010 can spend as much as a political party that is contesting seats in the upper house of Parliament and up to ten seats in the lower house.
There have been election campaigns by third party groups in all past NSW elections. This is the first time in NSW that there has been an attempt to regulate them.
Free expression of ideas and values are crucial in a healthy democracy. The question does arise however whether spending so much money on campaigns by a small number of special interest groups is positive. Many people are concerned about the privileged access by the richer and better organised lobby groups as they can drown out the messages of much smaller community groups and individuals.
As of the end of last week 22 organisations had registered with the EFA. A list of these organisations appears at the end of this article. As can be seen, a total of 16 beat the end of year deadline so they can spend over $1 million during the 2011 election, while six groups registered in January. We expect more third parties to sign up in the coming weeks.
Of the 22 that are currently registered, 15 are unions. There are two business lobby groups, a club, an organisation related to the Liberal Party, the National Roads and Motorists Association (NRMA), GetUp and the Australian Christian Lobby.
While the issues on which each of these organisations plan to campaign are only beginning to be seen, we can look at the goals of various types of third party groups and speculate about several campaigns they may pursue.
GetUp campaigns on a wide range of progressive issues ranging from tackling climate change, support for human rights and fighting internet censorship. At the other end of the political spectrum is the Australian Christian Lobby, which campaigns to maintain conservative religious values, including opposition to same sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia while supporting laws that allow private schools to expel gay students.
Business interest groups lobby on behalf of their members in order to influence government policies that typically give economic benefits to them. The two that have registered so far are the Property Council of Australia and the NSW Business Chamber.
Since individual property companies are banned from making donations in NSW to political parties, it seems reasonable to assume that the Property Council will run campaigns to benefit the interests of the entire property sector. The money that the Council uses most likely comes from developers who were banned from donating to political parties in NSW in 2009.
The ability of entities which were banned from making donations to political parties now to run third party campaigns is a major loophole in the new amendments to the NSW Election Funding and Disclosures Act.
The NRMA is currently running a campaign called "Seeing Red on Roads" which highlights the problems motorists face on NSW roads every day. Their advertisements are encouraging people to vote in the upcoming election with NSW roads in mind. The head of the NRMA, Wendy Machin, is a former National Party MP.
Unions typically lobby for better work and economic conditions for their members. Two of the unions that registered early as third party campaigners are the Nurses Association and Police Association of NSW.
Both of these unions, along with the Australian Medical Association (NSW) and the Health Services Union, launched the Last Drinks campaign in NSW last year. It is aimed at lessening the burden that alcohol-related violence places on their services, and the greater community each year.
It is quite possible that these two unions may run a third party campaign during the election to pressure politicians to support Last Drinks.
While free expression of opinion is a critical right in a healthy democracy, it is possible that well funded third party campaigns could drown out other voices in the community. Also, these large campaigns can be run by groups whose members are now banned from making direct political donations. This is because property, alcohol and gaming interests in NSW are no longer able to donate any money to political parties or candidates.
Previously there were no election spending caps on third parties so the new laws are an improvement. However, in order to maintain the right of free expression without the loss of political equality for all groups, we believe that the expenditure caps on third parties should be much lower than they currently are in NSW.
In Canada, third parties have to register with the electoral authorities once they have spent more than $500 on election advertising. They then have to disclose their expenditure and donors and comply with an upper limit on third party expenditure of C$188,250.
Similar expenditure limits should apply in NSW and throughout Australia. The Canadian model gets the balance right: free speech is not limited, but no one group can spend vast amounts of money in order to unduly influence governmental decisions.
Third Party Campaigners Registered NSW EFA for 2011 Election
Registered Prior to 31 December 2010
Public Services Association of NSW
Electrical Trades Union of Australia, NSW Branch
Australian Meat Industry Employees Union Newcastle & Northern Branch
Shop Assistants and Warehouse Employees Federation of Australia Newcastle & Northern NSW
CFMEU Mining & Energy – Northern District
Australian Rail, Tram and Bus Industry Union – NSW Branch
Australian Manufacturing Workers Union
NSW Nurses Association
Police Association of NSW
National Roads and Motorists’ Association Ltd
The Australian Workers Union – Greater NSW Branch
CFMEU Mining and Energy
Australian Christian Lobby
Transport Workers Union of NSW
Dame Pattie Menzies Liberal Foundation
Registered in 2011
NSW Teachers Federation
NSW Local Government, Clerical, Administrative, Energy, Airlines & Utilities Union
NSW Business Chamber
Sutherland District Trade Union Club
Property Council of Australia
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