The latest Essential Research survey is out, but they’ve sent it as a Word document rather than a PDF and for some reason WordPress won’t let me upload it (UPDATE: The good people at Essential have sent through a PDF). It has the Coalition maintaining its 51-49 lead for a third week running, though down a point on the primary vote to 44 per cent with Labor steady on 38 per cent and the Greens up one to 11 per cent. Other questions relate to gay marriage, which 50 per cent support but only 37 per cent consider important, and the National Broadband Network, with 69 per cent agreeing it is important that it be built.
The New South Wales government last week passed significant campaign finance reforms through parliament with the support of the Greens in the upper house, including several measures new to Australian practice which could set trends for the federal and other parliaments. Imre Salusinszky of The Australian described the bill, no doubt correctly, as an intriguing mix of progressive public policy and political rat cunning. To deal with its major features in turn:
Spending caps. Salusinszky’s rat cunning lies in the government’s decision to impose limits on electoral communication expenditure just as corporate donors fall over themselves to curry favour with a soon-to-be-victorious Coalition. More predictably and still more contentiously, the bill defines trade unions as third parties whose campaigning will not be affected by caps on party spending, even if they are affiliated with Labor (Barry O’Farrell has peddled legal advice claiming this to be unconstitutional), and treats the Coalition as a single party. Party spending in the six months up to an election will be limited to $9.3 million centrally and $100,000, amounting to another $9.3 million given there are 93 electorates. It should be noted that electoral communication expenditure excludes such expensive party operations as polling and other research, and there is a view abroad that this means it is not as restrictive as it should be.
Donation caps. Apart from the largely symbolic $50,000 cap on donations from the gaming industry in Victoria, these have previously been unknown in Australia. The legislation caps donations at $5000 per financial year to parties, not counting party subscriptions of up to $2000, or $2000 a year to candidates or elected members. Furthermore, donations have been banned altogether from the alcohol and gambling sectors (together with the tobacco industry at the suggestion of the Greens), which have done so much to fill NSW Labor’s coffers over the years. This move is particularly interesting in light of recent retirement announcements by Paul Gibson and Joe Tripodi, who are renowned for having built their influence as conduits for such funding. This will apply not only to hotels and the Australian Hotels Association, but also to Coles and Woolworths owing to their liquor retailing activities. However, a late agreement between Labor and the Greens saw the exemption of non-profit registered clubs.
Public funding. The parties have compensated themselves for donations caps with what will amount to a hefty increase in public funding, under new arrangements that rupture the traditional link between votes cast and funding received. Parties that score more than 4 per cent of the vote will instead be reimbursed for their electoral communication expenditure to a maximum of a bit under $10 million. Parties or candidates only running in the Council have been treated more generously at the insistence of the Greens constitutional expert Anne Twomey says this might create legal problems as one type of political entity will be favoured over another, though George Williams says this is arguable.
AAP reports Queensland Opposition Leader John-Paul Langbroek has committed to sweeping electoral reforms if elected to government, including truth-in-advertising laws, campaign spending caps, electronic voting and a referendum on fixed terms if elected to government. In contrast to the spending cap just introduced in New South Wales, Langbroek proposes that campaign spending by (presumably Labor-affiliated) unions would count as part of Labor expenditure. In addition to these largely laudable measures, Langbroek also proposes to require that voters provide photo identification at the polling booth, citing spurious concerns about voting fraud to justify an effective restriction on the franchise to his own party’s electoral advantage.
Jeremy Pierce of the Courier-Mail reports that a Gold Coast couple is challenging a fine for failure to vote in last year’s state election on the grounds that they did not know the election was on, having never received one bit of information about it. University of Queensland Law School academic Graeme Orr’s newly published The Law of Politics: Elections, parties and Money in Australia (available now from Federation Press) relates a number of unsuccessful challenges against fines brought by voters on the basis that they lacked a genuine preference between the candidates on offer, but nothing of this kind. UPDATE: Graeme Orr writes in comments: There is case law rejecting a defense of ‘I had no information about the candidates’. They might win by arguing the general criminal law defense of honest mistake of fact.