The Fairfax papers ran a series of articles today on the supposedly insidious nature of political donations, with even Treasurer Joe Hockey conceding the government would fund election campaigns if private donations were forced to be wound back:
[Hockey] said the parties regularly discuss ways to improve the system but warned the public would end up paying if the private sector was banned from donating.
“The bottom line is if you decrease private fundraising then you have to increase taxpayer funded election campaign,” Mr Hockey said.
However, private political donations are essential to a democratic system. As Chris Berg explained back in February 2012, in relation to changes to New South Wales campaign finance laws:
Restrictions on donations hurt the party out of power. It is expensive to compete with the soapbox of incumbency. Stemming the flow of money favours the government.
Compounding this, donors like to back winners. And Labor, reeling after a historic loss, is bound to be a loser for the foreseeable future.
Yet that sort of crude political calculation is par for the course when it comes to donations reform. The truly obnoxious part of the NSW Government’s bill is how it restricts third party organisations from conducting political campaigns.
And on a more philosophical note:
Yet there is a deeper philosophical disagreement here, and it concerns how we understand “democratic” political debate. Broadly, there are two models.
The first imagines democratic debate as a free-for-all…
The second model argues that governments should “manage” the debate… But this second model is puzzling. Free debate informs the decisions made by voters to elect representatives and change governments. Free debate is at the heart of democracy. So what right does a government have to manipulate that debate? How can it legitimately suppress and restrain participants that it has determined are excessively loud, or decide what constitutes a “genuine” – rather than political – campaign?
And when such laws were struck down by the High Court in December 2013:
Mr Berg said it should be legal for trade unions, corporations, environmental groups and individuals to donate money to political parties and participate in the democratic process.
“Any laws that restrict freedom of speech are limitations on our most fundamental rights.
“Campaign finance restrictions are both a restriction on free speech and suppress democratic political participation.”