Friday, March 2, 2018

What Happened When The Previous Government Moved To Change Tasmania's Donation Laws

I have used the word "moved" instead of "tried" in the title of this piece. There is a reason for that.

Tasmania's lax political donation and disclosure laws have become a major controversy in the Tasmanian election campaign (see guide), with the Greens threatening to move a no-confidence motion against the Hodgman government unless it discloses the campaign donations funding what seems to be a very expensive campaign.  References have been made to failed attempts to reform campaign donations in the last days of the previous Labor-Green government, with Labor saying simply that the Liberals blocked them.  So I thought I'd refresh my memory, and then that of anyone reading, concerning what actually happened there.

In November 2012 the government had introduced an electoral amendment partly covering donations laws, including an attempt to ban donations from tobacco companies.  The Legislative Council rejected the tobacco company restriction (on the grounds of singling out a single source) and passed the rest.

Then in November 2013, near the end of the last sitting year before the election, the Giddings Labor Government introduced the Electoral Amendment (Electoral Expenditure and Political Donations) Bill 2013.  Key features of the Bill included:

* A ban on anyone other than a candidate (or their agent) incurring expenditure to promote that candidate's election
* A campaign expenditure limit of $75,000 per candidate as of 2014, increasing by $1000 per calendar year
* A campaign expenditure cap for party campaigning of $750,000 per candidate as of 2014
* Requirements to disclose donations above $500 within 14 days
* Bans on anonymous donations exceeding $1500

The Liberal Party opposed the Bill.  Its primary argument for doing so was that the bill would disadvantage it by allowing Labor and the Greens to each spend as much as it did. Matthew Groom said "What we have here is an alliance between Labor and the Greens that will collectively be able to outspend the Liberal Party, the official opposition party of the state of Tasmania, two to one."

The Liberals also accused the Attorney-General of having kept the Bill secret while himself engaging in campaign spending and thereby (if the Bill was passed) creating a higher threshhold for himself.  They also complained about legal complexities, suggested the Bill would disproportionately deter small business from donating (for fear of boycotts), and objected to uncertainties concerning what was party campaigning and what was candidate campaigning.  And they objected to the legislation being put at the end of the year before the election, rather than with more consultation.

The Greens in reply pointed out that the Liberals never intended supporting the Bill anyway and hadn't been too concerned about not rushing through legislation when they reduced the size of parliament in 1998.  They also mentioned that Labor and the Greens had hardly been working together to defeat the Liberals in 2010 when Labor attacked the Greens via robocalls during the campaign.

There was a long debate, some of which looks a lot like filibuster, and I don't want to summarise or even re-read all of it now.  I do want to mention one issue pointed out: that the Bill was copied from the defective Legislative Council spending rules that placed no restriction on outside forces incurring campaign expenditure to campaign against a specific party. This problem had surfaced in the 2013 Legislative Council election for Nelson when a range of left-wing super-PACs circumvented the LegCo's severe campaign spending caps by endorsing multiple challengers to the incumbent.

Anyway the Bill passed on party lines with Labor and the Greens supporting and went off to the Legislative Council.  There, the Liberal Party held only 2/15 seats, with a third held by "independent liberal" Tony Mulder (a party member but not a parliamentary party member).  Mulder jumped in with the extremely unusual suggestion that the bill be denied a first reading on the grounds that it was a political exercise and the Council didn't have time to consider it properly.  The first reading was passed on a 9-5 vote, with Mulder, the two official Liberals, and conservative independents Ivan Dean and Greg Hall against the first reading.

Although the motion passed that vote, it was clear during the discussion that some MLCs who had voted for the first reading either didn't support the Bill anyway (Harriss) or at least didn't want to expedite it (Taylor).  The final nail in the coffin came when Leader for the (then) Government Craig Farrell (ALP) sought leave to move a motion regarding suspending standing orders, Ruth Forrest indicated she wanted to speak against the granting of leave, and at that point Farrell decided not to proceed further. Farrell had already himself indicated that in any case he was "a great fan of committee processes and doing legislation the proper way."

The Bill was made an order of the day along with many others, and that's the last that was heard of it, since it had progressed no further when the Lower House was dissolved, and obviously the incoming Liberals wanted nothing to do with it.

An Australian Parliament House summary of the 2014 election states:

"The issue of political donations was first raised in 2008 by Premier Paul Lennon in the context of reforms proposed by the Commonwealth and NSW Labor Governments. Despite the House of Assembly supporting a motion by the Tasmanian Greens for a parliamentary committee to examine state-based political donations laws, the matter languished until 2013 when the Attorney-General Brian Wightman confirmed the Government’s commitment to reform by tabling the Electoral Amendment (Electoral Expenditure and Political Donations) Bill 2013 [..]"

So Labor and the Greens in government had abundant opportunity to do something serious about donations and disclosure laws in the 2010-4 parliament, chose to leave it til the final moment when it had been under consideration for more than a year, and couldn't get it through upstairs, where nobody at all (not just not the Liberals) seemed to want it to be rammed through in time for the election.  To say "the Liberals blocked" it is just false - though it is true they voted against it.  The Bill, especially given its timing, was at best a half-baked and flawed effort, and the Legislative Council rightly (and apparently by consensus) didn't want to rush it through without sufficient scrutiny.

We can never know what would have become of donations disclosure reform had it been taken to the Legislative Council in a more timely manner and perhaps without being attached to obviously flawed measures on spending caps.  We can never know, had the Greens moved their own Bill earlier in the 2010-4 parliament (of which I had found no evidence), whether Labor would have supported it through the House of Assembly.  But in response to a snarky tweet by me about the Greens' abrupt shift from wanting to work constructively with all parties to wanting to bring one down, I have been advised that "Grownups defend democracy".

Perhaps had they done so more effectively, we wouldn't be where we are now.


  1. I'm a big fan of the Greens, but I try to be open minded about criticism so that I can help improve the party. Filtering useful criticism from the noise can be difficult, but this observation from Fiona Patten in the Victorian parliament has stuck with me:

    “For some reason they don’t seem to be proactive – they don’t put up pieces of legislation,” she says. “Even with the gambling, I put up numerous amendments to that. The Greens would say, ‘We’ve been calling for those amendments,’ but they’ve never done them.

    “The supervised injecting centre, and safe access zones, they said, ‘We’ve been calling for this for ages,’ but they’ve never in their time put up a bill to introduce either. I just don’t get it.” (The Greens declined to comment.)

    Seems relevant to your post here.

  2. When I use to go to this blog it takes me to your Feb 1 Not A Poll story. And the click on link on (Dr Kevin Bonham) at the top of the page isn't live. I could only get to here from the link you put on Twitter

    1. That's because this article is nearly a year old, not a new article. I'm going to put a link to it in the sidebar - I've rather had enough of Labor's fibs, blame games and excuses on this topic.


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