Dr Graeme Orr is an Associate Professor in the law school at the University of Queensland. He has researched and commented on the rules regulating politics, parties and elections for the past decade.
Interview with Dr Graeme Orr
Why is it important that political parties disclose donations?
Parties are not purely private entities, but exist to control public power.Disclosure is intended to allow the media to question cases of the buying of access or favours by donors.
It was also intended to encourage modesty in donations:some companies have been so moved, but in some industries (eg finance and property development) it may have just ‘normalised’ the practice of giving generous sums, often to both major parties.
A third, lesser reason for disclosure is to let punters judge parties on who they consort with.A Martian, for instance, could have picked the shift by the ALP away from democratic socialism between the 1970s and 1990s, by its increasing reliance on corporate donors from.
Do Australian political parties disclose all their donations and the sources or are secret donations permissible? Which party has the worst record in relation to this?
They have a fair record of basic disclosure.The new law however allows donations under $10 000 to be kept secret, and this figure applies to each party branch.Also, parties use fund-raising entities and foundations to obscure the trail of many donations.In the most egregious cases, trusts, loans and even bogus raffles have been used to circumvent disclosure.The Australian Electoral Commission does not have a large unit to keep track of parties and candidates nationwide, and face a cat-and-mouse game, with inadequate laws and powers.
Neither major party is better or worse.Each will copy the advice of the other’s lawyers by mimicking any useful tricks, and each study the manoeuvrings of the major parties and their professional consultants in the US and to a lesser extent the UK.
What are the limits on political donations and expenditure of the donations?
Virtually none.You can donate as much as you like to Australian parties and candidates, provided certain larger donations are disclosed.This freedom extends to donations from abroad, and donations from companies and unions can donate.There are only a couple of symbolic restrictions, like Victorian parties being limited to $50k from casinos, and the ALP lately refusing to take tobacco money.
Similarly, there are almost no restrictions on expenditure, either in the size or style of campaigning.
How do other leading countries regulate political donations? How do expenditure caps apply in theUnited Kingdom,New ZealandandCanada?
Australia has the least regulated system of any comparable democracy. Other countries try to rein in the ‘arms race’ of political finance, with restrictions on supply or demand, or both.
The US, who we normally see as putting liberty ahead of equality, has long restricted company and union donations, and has a much more tightly regulated disclosure system.Also the US – and Canada – cap individual donations.
Of our common law cousins listed in the question, all three limit expenditure on campaigns.Limits apply to both candidates’ constituency level campaigns, and to overall party expenditure.The typical method is to calculate the cap according to the size of the electorate and numbers of electorates contested.
Such restrictions need to be carefully drawn:initially NZ parties did not go close to the expenditure limit.It was simply drawn too generously.
In the UK, expenditure is also repressed by banning political ads on t.v./radio at any time, and requiring broadcasters to give parties free air-time.Canada wisely also caps expenditure by ‘third parties’, eg lobby groups, who if not restricted would be able to outspend parties.Our High Court may have something to say about such restrictions, having discovered a ‘freedom of political communication’ in our Constitution. Consider how such restrictions would have impeded the union campaign against ‘WorkChoices’.
How do you believe the use of the media should be regulated for campaigning by party incumbents?
The most pressing problem in Australia is not so much the excess of private money, as the misuse of public money.You can’t eradicate incumbency benefits.But incumbents, in a stable, relatively prosperous democracy already benefit from free media exposure and being associated with public works.The trend in the past decade, by both sides of politics when in government, is to splurge hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on ‘campaign’ advertising.
By this I don’t mean ‘vote for me’ ads, which are forbidden.But feel-good campaigns about how things are looking up for public hospitals or schools, or attempts to mollify negative opinion on unloved policies like ‘WorkChoices’ and the GST.It’s even reached the tit-for-tat stage, with Labor states running anti-WorkChoices ads.It’s blatant politics, directed at the least tuned-in voters.
The ads are rarely authorized by a responsible agency or department, but by ‘The Australian Government’ or ‘Queensland Government’, terms people associate with the leader and party in power.
The simplest answer is for Parliament to rein in the Executive by legislating a maximum amount on campaign ads per year, with no spiking in election years.This would encourage governments to prioritise necessary campaigns (eg public health education) and find better ways to target information.Spending to promote policies not yet considered by parliament should be banned, or if it must occur, be balanced between ‘for’ and ‘against’ ads.
How do other countries involve their youth in elections in comparison to Australia?
Not much better.Turnout is poor in most countries with voluntary voting (New Zealand is a relative exception).So whilst 25-30% of 18 year olds here don’t enroll, compulsion at least encourages everyone into the tent, and people start seriously thinking about voting younger than would otherwise be the case.
18 is an arbitrary age:the odd region like some German provinces have tried a lower voting age.The Greens want to lower the voting age, for obvious reasons.
Parties have youth wings.But in Labor and Liberal particularly these have degenerated from policy and social clubs into playthings of factional hacks.Parties are experimenting with branches based on areas of interest and even internet connections; but on the whole young people are driven by issues rather than identification with an ideology or loyalty to any ongoing cause.
You have also recommended that we need to enfranchise the large number of permanent residents in Australia to enhance political equality and also not disqualify voters with criminal convictions from elections. Does the government discriminate against those who have served their punishment from voting as well as those who are serving their sentences? How do the parties view your recommendations and what counter arguments do they use to support the status quo?
People assume citizenship defines a political community.Australia didn’t have a Citizenship Act till 1948.(White) British subjects with sufficient residency could vote – that reflected the fact we were part of a semi-global community in the form of the Empire.
We are an immigrant community that encourages mobility and permit Australians abroad to continue to vote for up to 6 years.The old catch-cry ‘No Taxation without Representation’ seems apt.New Zealand allows permanent residents to vote.
Prisoner voting rights are a complete political football.The parties of the left support voting rights for all; conservative parties are happier to disenfranchise prisoners.It’s a contradiction to force people to vote on pain of fine, then go out of our way to deny prisoners the vote as a form of symbolic punishment.At least in Australia, unlike many US states, ‘felons’ aren’t disenfranchised for life.But it still disproportionately affects men, especially Aboriginal men.
What does your research indicate about the level and type of dissent amongst Australian voters and how what does this mean for the practice of compulsory voting?
I don’t do empirical research.The level obviously fluctuates: eg it was high enough to drive the One Nation cyclone, but the major parties were looked upon benignly at the 2004 election.
Dissent is suppressed in Australia because of compulsory voting.We should measure dissent from within, by retaining compulsion but making it clear that people can vote informally, or better still have a ‘None of the Above’ box.
Do you consider Australia’s redistribution process of electoral boundaries to uphold the principle of population equality, fairly?
We do very well.We have truly independent boundary commissions:in some US states it is done by the parties in the legislature!Federally, the commission has to aim to have each seat no more than 3.5% difference from its state’s quota at election time.Typically it comes much closer to exact one-vote, one-value.
Only to a limited extent in Qld and WA do we have rural weighting.Oh, and a constitutional protection of Tasmania’s seats.
But majority-rules voting systems means there’s nothing very proportional about election outcomes.Typically the more popular major party wins a sizeable majority even if the opposition was only a few percent away.And sometimes a party wins with a minority of votes, either because it is better at targeting marginals or its rival has too many votes locked up in safe seats.
On the whole do you believe that our electoral system operates with democratic accountability and fairness? How have these issues been promoted and worked on by the community and why has there been so little change in the system to make it more transparent and ethical?
On the whole it does, thanks chiefly to a tradition of very professional, independent electoral authorities.Also the machinery of our laws is constantly updated.The decline in recent years has been because of the withering of parties into hyper-professional cliques of apparatchiks with the dominant aim of winning seats for themselves or their factions.We’ve also gone from a world leader in democratic experimentation to electoral systems that seem closed to any major reform.
Typically there is a lot of media and a fair amount of community interest in electoral fairness.But few lobby groups have evolved to push the cause.It will take a major scandal, or a paradigm shift (like the breakthrough of One Nation or the Greens to power-sharing) to shift the complacency.
Can the introduction of a Bill of Rights bring change and reform to the electoral system?
Depends on the Bill of Rights – and the judges.A guaranteed right to vote for example might mean the end of prisoner disenfranchisement.But typically Bills of Rights are worded very abstractly, so short of some very mischievous law-making, or very activist judges, they are unlikely to strike down much electoral law.
Such rights can be distorted.So limits on electoral expenditure, worthwhile in the interests of political equality or reining in wasteful advertising, may be struck down at the suit of a private lobby or even front group insisting on its ‘right to political communication’.
What will be some of the main electoral issues that you will be watching in the upcoming federal election?
A big issue will be the early closing of the electoral rolls.Traditionally we had a grace period of at least a week to enrol once the election was called.Now we will have no time.It’s predicted that many young and new voters will miss out.
The main item of interest is whether incumbency or inertia will protect a somewhat tired government from an untested opposition.