Thursday, January 16, 2020

Australia: Qld. move towards taxpayer-supported election campaigns  threatens free speech

Not-for-profits warn laws will end public debate

Background: Queensland will impose Australian-first election campaign spending limits and laws to block large political donations among a suite of integrity reforms announced on Tuesday. Although controversial, many integrity experts argue tipping the balance towards taxpayer-funded elections increases transparency and reduces the influence of large donors. The laws would restrict third-party organisations, including unions, political action groups like GetUp and industry bodies, to spend $87,000 in a single electorate, with an overall cap of $1m. The government would increase payments to candidates from $1.57 a vote to $3 a vote, with the eligibility threshold lowered from 6% of the first-preference vote to 4%.

CHARITIES have warned they will be "silenced" by a Queensland Government crackdown on election spending that could crimp their ability to fundraise and stifle public debate.

In free-speech backlash, not-for-profit groups warned that planned laws will discourage them from advocating on a wide range of issues because they risk being hit with caps on donations and spending.

Unions including the Nurses Union and Together argued that the planned laws could restrict them from campaigning on policy issues that affect their members.

As part of the Palaszczuk Government's plan to limit election spending, groups that spend more than $1000 in a bid to "directly or indirectly" influence votes up to a year before an election would be forced to register as a third party with the Electoral Commission.

These groups would have to disclose donations, face caps of $4000 per donor for political matters every four years and limit their spending to $1 million or $87,000 per electorate. Queensland Law Society president Luke Murphy said the law would have a "chilling effect" on public debate. Many charities backed the plan to restrict election spending by parties, but argued that they should not be caught by the rules.

Queensland Council of Social Service chief Mark Henley warned that the laws could "stifle public advocacy from not-for-profits, including small community groups and charities". The spending limit could include amounts spent on research, polling and staff, as well as advertising, he said.

Greenpeace Australia's Terry O'Donnell said that an ad about "the impact of climate change on the bushfires" would be caught by the laws "even if it does not mention a party or candidate".

Australian Conservation Foundation chief Anthony Moore said that the planned laws would "make Queensland elections more inequitable, by silencing community voices, while letting the largest third party actors — corporations and industry groups — off the hook".

A government spokesman said that they would consider recommendations from a parliamentary committee that is examining the laws.

From the Brisbane "Courier Mail" of 13 January, 2020

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