Donations Laws Don't Create A Level Playing Field


The NSW government’s donations reforms have not excited much public comment since being passed into law in February 2012. At a cursory glance they seem quite reasonable – organisations (such as corporations, unions, or other non-government actors) can no longer financially back political parties.

Justin Field’s recent article for New Matilda took Unions NSW to task for daring to challenge the reforms in the High Court. He argues that a successful challenge would be disastrous for grassroots campaigns. As an ex-staffer for the Greens MLC who first publicly backed the changes, he would appear to know what he is talking about. After all, Premier Barry O'Farrell defended the move as a clean up of NSW politics:

"The reforms are based on a very clear principle — only those entitled to a vote at an election should be allowed to decide whether or not to make political donations. Corporations, unions and other third-party organisations are not entitled to a vote and shouldn’t be allowed to influence the system."

This is a laudable sentiment, but in truth these laws are all about making it harder for the labour movement to engage with parliamentary politics, while leaving the door open for the natural constituency of the conservatives to keep the cash rolling in.

The reform rests upon a view that unions and corporations are equal players, and should be treated equally. But they aren’t equal. They aren’t the same. Unions are made up of, and sustained by, working people. Corporations are controlled by, and exist to benefit, the top 1 per cent.

As an example, the Financial Services Union (FSU) is an organisation of modestly paid white collar workers. Does anyone really think it is the equivalent of billion dollar enterprises like the ANZ? If the FSU had anything like the power of the major banks then bank tellers would be far better paid, and bank executives' remuneration packages would be less obscene.

Around one million Australians are members of a union. The labour movement remains the biggest social movement in the country. Its power comes from what pressure it can bring to bear upon employers and governments through collective action, and through collective pooling of resources to participate in the political process. In NSW the government is doing its best to shut down that site of opposition.

But it’s not all bad news is it? Surely the capping of individual donations to only $5000 is a step forward? Not really. I am reminded here of the great novelist Anatole France, who said:

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Similarly now in NSW we are all free, rich and poor alike, to donate up to $5000 to the party of our choice.

You can see the problem. Passing the hat around after a union meeting will get a different return to passing the hat around after a meeting of the NSW Bar Association. The net cash result of 50 hospital cleaners digging deep to back an ALP or Greens candidate will be less than 50 business people looking to support the conservative candidate of their choice.

Historically, working people have pooled our resources through our community organisations to counteract the deep pockets of the 1 per cent. And for over a century it has been the trade union movement that has primarily performed this role. We are political organisations as well as industrial ones, and the O’Farrell government knows this only too well.

Which is why they did it. This isn’t about cleaning up politics. It’s about cutting off the financial support for their political opponents, but leaving the door open for their natural constituency to keep the money rolling in. And that is why it was a serious error for the NSW Greens to support it.

There are some in the Greens who see this as a good thing; it will break the union movement’s intimate financial links to the ALP. I would like to see our unions more independent of the Labor Party. I am a part of building such a movement. I lead a union that disaffiliated from the ALP for precisely that reason. But allowing the conservatives to try to legislate away such a link will not destroy it.

The only way genuinely progressive parties like the Greens will be able to break that link is by being a part of the union movement, learning from and assisting that movement, and winning the political and financial support of that movement.

I am the State Secretary of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union. I am also a proud member of the Greens. My union supports this High Court challenge because the O’Farrell electoral laws are, once you get past the spin, nothing more than an attempt to cripple the government’s political opponents.

The Greens' position on electoral reform is a good one. It is one of the reasons I am a member of the party. But the O’Farrell laws are a poor shade of our policy. Rather than introduce a genuine level playing field they make sure that the Liberal party's support base can continue to feed the party coffers. It was a serious error, and — I would argue — inconsistent with what the Greens are really about.

Justin Field argues that social change comes from mobilising people against the financial resources of governments and industry. I agree, and am proud to lead an organisation that does precisely that. But part of that struggle occurs in the electoral sphere. While we make our history in the street and the workplace, legislation entrenches and defends those wins. Unfortunately on this issue, Field has got it wrong. My party made a mistake in backing these reforms, and Field compounds that mistake by trying to defend it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.