Elections and voting

Canberra uses taxes to end meddlesome Constitutional restraints

Beyond the nearly $20 billion deficit and other headline programs, there was a bitter pill of democracy in last night’s Budget. According to the Budget papers the government is going to spend $55.6 million in the lead up to the September 14 referendum to Constitutionally recognise local government, of which $11.6 million will be a backdoor advertising push for the ‘yes’ case. According to page 246 of Budget Paper 2:

The Government will provide $55.6 million over two years to conduct a referendum on the financial recognition of local government in the Australian Constitution … The Australian Electoral Commission will receive $44.0 million over two years to conduct the referendum and the Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, the Arts and Sport will receive $11.6 million to undertake a national civics education campaign to provide information to the general public on the referendum and reform process.

Education on civics is fine. But I seriously doubt ‘a national civics education campaign’ will be anything other than the importance of three levels of government which is a dodgy way of saying – shouldn’t we include local government in the Constitution as well?

Some have speculated that this referendum is a sop to the Greens and Independents. But it is clear that the Gillard government wants it to be successful. More disturbingly the so-called Federalist Liberal Party also wants it to get up. Should we be surprised that politicians want to undermine the rules that limit the excesses of their power? Probably not.

In a democracy they are free to make that argument. But unless there is clear oversight of how this $11.6 million is spent it is highly likely to be an abuse of taxpayer’s money that should be challenged in the High Court.

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The tyranny of Constitutional recognition of local government

I have an article today in The Australian ($) about the forthcoming Canberra grab for power over local communities through the Constitutional referendum to recognise local government. I argue:

Different levels of government are given, rightly, different responsibilities.

Federal government is responsible for foreign affairs and those responsibilities that require national consistency, and has little service delivery capacity because it is so distant from Australians.

States are responsible for matters that marry local responsiveness with scale.

Local government delivers services that require direct relationships because of their closeness to Australians.

Constitutional recognition will turn our democracy on its head and perpetuate centralisation.

Worse:

Canberra freely will be able to direct local government by attaching policy strings to funding.

But there’s a reason Federal MPs love it:

Part of the reason Labor and some Coalition MPs support the referendum is because it enables them to become kingmakers in their communities by tying federal government largesse to their preferred local outcomes.

It’s worrying how significant a hatchet job this plan is on our democracy and how many MPs are prepared to support it.

I’m not the only one who has written about this important subject. My colleague Chris Berg recently wrote about it in the Fairfax press.

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Canberra council grab a disaster for democracy and rates

media-release-web

“Constitutional recognition of local government will lead to a federal takeover of local laws, lead to rate increases, expansion of bad and petty laws and corrode Australian democracy,” said Tim Wilson, policy director at free market think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs.

The Institute of Public Affairs is strongly opposed to constitutional recognition, because it will:

  • lead to creeping Canberra control of local services through funding agreements.
  • undermine the role of the states and their oversight of local government.
  • stop states from removing corrupt councils and amalgamating inefficient ones.
  • lead to rate rises from councils without state government oversight.
  • increase the volume of petty and intrusive laws into people’s lives and businesses.

“Australia should be governed from local communities-up, not Canberra-down,” Mr Wilson said.

“This referendum is about governing bin collections for Broome, Buderim and Burnie from the Prime Minister’s Canberra office.”

“With every single federal dollar comes strings attached, this plan is about centralising more power in Canberra and further away from local communities. Local government rules and regulations, from planning applications to caring for local parks, will be driven by Canberra.”

“The referendum is a rehashing of Gough Whitlam’s failed attempt to bypass the states and promote a level of government that is easier to control from the Prime Minister’s office.”

“Scrapping state government oversight of local government will create fiefdoms for local kingmakers and petty bureaucrats.”

“Often state government restraints stop significant rate rises, once local government sits separately they will raise rates and increase costs to families.”

“Local governments are already the source of the most intrusive rules and regulations into people’s lives from stopping kite flying in parks, to tying community street parties up in red tape and destroying community festivals through excessive food handling regulations. Constitutional recognition will make it worse.”

“If this referendum is successful the level of government closest to Australian families will be taken over by the one most distant and disconnected. It will be a disaster for Australian democracy,” Mr Wilson said.

For media and comment: Tim Wilson, policy director, 0417 356 165

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Queensland IR changes threaten free speech

Late last week, Queensland Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie introduced a new industrial relations bill into the Legislative Assembly of Queensland. According to the Attorney-General, the Industrial Relations (Transparency and Accountability of Industrial Organisations) and Other Acts Amendment Bill 2013 will give members of unions and employer organisations more of a say in how their membership fees are used:

“These organisations occupy a unique and privileged position in the industrial relations system,” Mr Bleijie said.

“In light of that position, members deserve to know where and how their membership fees are being spent.”

Apart from the slightly patronising undertone of a statement like this, you might think these changes are pretty sensible.

Think again.

The bill is a thinly veiled attempt to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of political participation. If passed, the law would compel unions and employer groups to hold a ballot of their members to approve annual spending over $10,000 that goes towards a “political purpose”. The mandatory “expenditure ballot” would require at least 50% of members to vote, and approval from at least 50% of those that cast a vote in the ballot.

The changes will have an unacceptable impact on freedom of speech – the bill makes it much more difficult for an organisation to participate in political debate. This is campaign finance reform by stealth. Including the changes in a package ostensibly designed to reform industrial relations is a devious political move.

Andrew Norton has written some excellent analysis on this issue over on his blog. He notes:

The bill is supported by the minister with the usual rhetoric about transparency and accountability. But members of political organisations do not necessarily want to be involved in the detail of campaigns or activism. Joining is an act of delegation, paying others to sort out the detail of a cause or interest the member supports.

Political campaigns are normal business for unions and employer groups. If their members are unhappy with these campaigns they can say so, and vote out the leadership or leave the organisation if they are not satisfied with the leadership’s response. This is all the accountability that is required.

Norton’s observations are spot on.

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The “Stalinist” ban on door-knocking

Door-knocking is one of the most basic political campaign tools. It’s one of the simplest ways for politicians to sell their message and gain support from constituents; it’s a great feature of democracy.

But the practice has been banned from public housing estates:

Last month, the Department of Human Services introduced rules that banned politicians from door-knocking estate tenants and prohibited residents from posting political material on noticeboards and holding political rallies in common areas.

Socialist councillor Stephen Jolly – apparently deaf to irony –  described the changes as “Stalinist”:

“Why should public housing tenants have fewer rights than the rest of us?” he said.

“It’s like North Korea – it’s restricted democracy. Where is it going to end? Are they going to tell them what TV stations they are going to watch?”

But Jolly is right. The ban on door-knocking, posting political material and holding rallies undermines freedom of speech, and it infantilises those who live in public housing.

It would be tempting to put this down to bureaucratic overreach, since the original decision was made by the Department. But disappointingly, the decision has been backed by Housing Minister Wendy Lovell. The Victorian government needs to reconsider its position.

If people choose not to listen when a candidate knocks on their door they’re free (and probably right) to do so. But banning the practice is an undemocratic move and operates as a limitation on free speech.

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Unions NSW to challenge NSW campaign finance law

A Sydney Morning Herald piece today formally announces that Unions NSW are challenging the O’Farrell government’s campaign finance laws in the Australian High Court:

Political donations laws in NSW will be tested in the High Court for the first time in a case brought by the union movement, which argues they infringe freedom of political communication and association.

The laws, introduced by the O’Farrell government in 2011, ban donations from anyone other than individuals on the electoral roll and restrict what individual unions affiliated to a political party can spend on campaigns.

They also prohibit the payment of affiliation fees such as those paid by unions to Labor and restrict the ability of Unions NSW and business or environment groups from receiving money from member organisations to run political advertising.

The case will pivot on the limits to the our constitutional right to freedom of political communication. The unions’ victory is hardly a sure thing. The High Court has applied the right very conservatively, as cases as recent as February have shown (we wrote about those here and here.)

But regardless of the constitutional issues, the O’Farrell reforms are unquestionably a limitation on freedom of speech – and a grossly excessive one at that. As I wrote in ABC’s The Drum last year:

A government’s legitimacy requires voters to make a free choice about their vote. That choice is not free if the government is managing how those decisions are made – preventing some third parties from endorsing and supporting candidates …

It’s an appealing idea to “get money out of politics”. But legislative attempts to do so have invariably punished oppositions, entrenched incumbents, and limited political participation. The O’Farrell Government’s reforms are just an egregiously bad example.

I also appeared at a Unions NSW function to express the IPA’s opposition to these laws on the grounds of freedom of speech late last year. The IPA’s James Paterson has also written in opposition to the NSW changes.

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A rousing defence of freedom

Paul Sheehan wrote an exceptional op ed for the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this week. He uses the piece to launch a full-bodied defence of freedom against the ever-growing Nanny State:

We are never going to be able to legislate recklessness or distractedness from the human condition, no matter how much legislation is passed, regulations imposed, regulators deployed, laws enforced, Orwellian cameras installed, or speed bumps inflicted.

Motorists are going to make mistakes, all manner of domestic accidents are going to take their toll, young women are going to get pregnant, young men are going to injure themselves, many people are going to binge or smoke or take drugs, and some children are going to be neglected. Crap happens.

As we become a culture of speed bumps, everything is imposed in our own interests, and the interest of an abstraction called public safety. Never acknowledged is the tax-funded self-justification of the political and bureaucratic class.

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Voluntary voting will have its day in court

Voting is a right, not a duty, according to Anders Holmdahl, 65, who deliberately skipped Election Day and refused to pay his fine to challenge compulsory voting in the courts:

An Adelaide man says he will take a legal challenge against compulsory voting to the High Court, after the state’s Supreme Court today rejected his argument that voting should be optional.

Now, Mr Holmdahl’s case has as much chance of success in the High Court as I did of winning the Brownlow last night. But that’s not the point.

Mr Holmdahl’s argument that a right not to vote is morally implied is sound.

Let’s hope this case is a catalyst for debate about just how democratic it is for Australians to be forced to turn up on polling day against their free choice.

UPDATE

It seems Tasmania is moving in the opposite direction. A Tasmanian government discussion paper has suggested local councils be given a choice to “opt-in” to compulsory voting, with fines for non-voters to cover the additional costs.

Pity the voters themselves won’t be given a choice where to opt.

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Should Voting Be Compulsory?

In the Herald Sun on Sunday, the IPA’s Lydia Bevege made the case for voluntary voting:

Australian democracy is not enhanced by forcing these people to express an opinion on parties and candidates they dislike.

Rejecting all candidates on the ballot paper and staying at home on election day is a legitimate democratic expression that Australians do not have the right to exercise. We are all forced to vote because other people have decided that we ought to be involved in the political process.

Read the whole thing here.

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