Under These Laws We'd Still Have WorkChoices

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While the nation's eyes have been focussed on the events in Canberra in the last fortnight, profound restrictions on political expression have been introduced in NSW.

If amendments to the Election Funding, Expenditure and Disclosures Act are allowed to stand, the voice of working people in NSW will be severely curtailed.

We will live in a society where mining magnates can purchase media companies or blanket advertising, but the political voice of three million working people is drowned out.

When the State Government began discussing this bill, its stated aim was to ensure political donations were restricted to individuals. In a clever piece of political subterfuge, the O'Farrell Government managed to lump the likes of trade unions and community sector organisations in the same pile as tobacco companies and property developers.

Only by banning all donations except those by "individuals" would we cleanse the body politic of special interests. Or so the argument went.

The NSW trade union movement was immediately aghast at the prospect. For more than a century we have understood well the fictional concept of the "individual" as political player. "Individuals" do not win justice in the workplace, nor do they effect broader political and social change. That is the role of a movement.

Working people intrinsically understand the basic flaw in the Government's argument. Not all individuals have the same financial means. For that reason, we have historically pooled our resources and run campaigns under a collective banner. Most recently, this happened in the Your Rights at Work campaign.

Faced with the most profound attack on workplace rights since the inception of the Australian Commonwealth, working people, their unions and other community organisations banded together.

We made advertisements, held rallies, knocked on doors and began a vibrant community discussion about how we thought our workplace laws should be constructed.

The result of that campaign is self-evident. But under the laws recently passed in NSW, that campaign would have been impossible. A key feature of Your Rights at Work was the capacity of peak bodies such as Unions NSW and the ACTU to play a co-ordinating role, both in terms of message and strategy, but also marshalling funds and people.

Understanding that this was an existential threat to workplace justice, the peak councils applied levies to their affiliates. Under the new laws, that would be illegal.

At the heart of the Coalition's aims is a cynical attempt to stop unions running robust campaigns that challenge the conservative orthodoxy. These laws have nothing to do with some idealised, abstract notion of individual political liberty. They have everything to do with tying the hands of the political organisations of working people.

Also banned is the right of trade unions to pay affiliation fees to a political party, make donations to a party or candidate's campaign or make indirect campaign contributions such as contributing staff or resources to a campaign.

The State Government argues on the one hand that its laws do not affect "genuine issue based campaigning", but then on the other hand, the laws prevent campaigns where resources have been pooled from "promoting or opposing, directly or indirectly, a party" or "influencing the voting in an election".

There is a clear logical inconsistency with these laws. What is the point of "issue based campaigning" if it has no political consequence? How can any movement actually influence any agenda without a political agenda? Under these absurd parameters, the Your Rights at Work campaign would have raised the issue of AWAs but then been hamstrung from advising the electorate to do anything about them.

Defenders of O'Farrell's law have cited the Canadian experience, and it is indeed instructive. In 2004 Canada restricted political donations to those from individuals, which attract a generous tax rebate for donors, and instituted a public funding model including a per-vote subsidy to political parties.

Since then, the Canadian Conservative Party has gone into fundraising hyperdrive, in 2009 spending over C$7 million on sophisticated fundraising techniques targeting the wealthy potential contributors, to raise nearly C$18 million — easily surpassing all other parties' donation income put together.

Now in majority Government, the Conservatives led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper have realised another long standing goal of bedding down their huge financial advantage by abolishing the per-vote subsidy.

Public funding will continue via the generous rebate for donations, but where the funding goes will effectively be determined by the tiny number — between 0.6 per cent and 0.8 per cent of Canadians in 2009 — who donate.

This small group of individual donors to political parties will now control and direct 100 per cent of all of the public funding to their preferred political parties and candidates.

Back home in NSW, wealthy individuals will now be able to donate up to $14,600 per year to the Coalition (by contributing to the Liberals and Nationals), while at election time they can self-fund "third party campaigns" on the Coalition's behalf to over $1 million.

These laws are a blatant and partisan political manoeuvre. Corporate donations might be banned, but the wealthy individuals who run those companies will still be able to donate. Meanwhile, unions and community organisations are shut out. The forced reliance on wealthy contributors will inevitably colour all political parties, not just the Tories who immediately benefit.

The reality is that these laws have a far more pernicious agenda than anyone has recognised. They explicitly favour the conservatives, who are far more likely to be the beneficiaries of individual largesse. The ALP and the trade union movement have collegial and collective political structures which will be severely undermined.

These laws are the funding equivalent of a gerrymander. We will be taking these laws to the High Court to argue one thing — these laws are an unnecessary and unfair impost on the political expression of working people. In the interests of a fair and democratic society, they should be repealed.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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