by Sean Nicholls
September 14, 2011
Donation challenge … Unions have spoken up against the O’Farrell government’s political donations bill.
Donation challenge … Unions have spoken up against the O’Farrell government’s political donations bill. Photo: Nick Moir
UNIONS have vowed to challenge the constitutionality of the state government’s political donations laws, arguing they would ”strip unions of their capacity to campaign for the rights of working people”.
The Premier, Barry O’Farrell, has introduced a bill to parliament banning political donations from corporations to parties or ”third parties” by restricting them to individuals who are on the electoral roll.
This would prevent the state’s peak union body, Unions NSW, from levying its member unions to fund advertising campaigns.
Unions NSW has used membership levies to fund campaigns such as Your Rights at Work before the 2007 federal election and the Better Services campaign before the March state election.
”If these laws pass in their current form, unions will be unable to run campaigns such as Your Rights at Work, which was instrumental in restoring the hard-won advances of working people over the last century,” the secretary of Unions NSW, Mark Lennon, told the Herald.
”The O’Farrell government is deliberately tilting the rules in favour of wealthy individuals who have the individual capacity to donate money to political campaigns. Should these laws pass in their current form we will mount a legal challenge.”
Aspects of the government’s bill are expected to be challenged when it comes before the Legislative Council. The proposal to restrict donations to individuals, which was a Coalition election promise, may cause problems for the Shooters and Fishers Party, which shares the balance of power in the upper house.
The party has used individual membership and affiliation payments as well as donations from groups such as the Federation of Hunting Clubs and the Sporting Shooters Association to fund its re-election campaigns. All such donations would be prohibited under the new laws.
The Shooters and Fishers Party has not indicated its position on the bill, but if it decides it will not support the laws, the government may be forced to deal with the Greens, who support the ban on corporate donations.
However, the Greens are proposing an amendment to another aspect of the bill that significantly restricts how much money unions affiliated to the Labor Party can spend on advertising during an election campaign.
The Greens will propose an amendment that would allow affiliated unions to spend money on election advertising without it counting against the party’s expenditure cap, but only if the campaign is issues-based and not advocating a party vote. The Greens NSW MP, John Kaye, said: ”Protecting the free speech rights of union members is more than just essential to protecting the legislation from a court challenge. It’s a core principle of democracy”.
However, the government is unlikely to support the amendment, given that one of the bill’s main focuses is to restrict the ability of affiliated unions to advertise in support of the Labor Party.
Mr O’Farrell told parliament on Monday that he expected the bill to trigger discussion about constitutional principles.
”It has always been a great excuse to do nothing and a way to justify the status quo,” he said. ”I believe that a ban on donations other than those by individuals does not place unreasonable restrictions on the implied freedom of political communication mandated by the Commonwealth constitution.”