Stop the union witch hunts

AWU national secretary Daniel Walton addresses the media at the offices of the Victorian branch of the AWU.
October 25, 2017

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids on the Melbourne and Sydney offices of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) on October 24 show the state is becoming more authoritarian at a time when more people are disengaging from politics as usual.

The AFP raids came after a Senate inquiry into associated entities — organisations that are closely associated with political parties and which are required to lodge annual returns with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). They wanted to see if the union had its paperwork in order for a donation made to GetUp! 12 years ago. GetUp!'s lawyers have warned that they could be raided next.

The AEC lists the types of organisations that are associated entities: think tanks, registered clubs, service companies, trade unions and corporate party members.

That the Coalition is trying to clamp down on the unions, and campaigning organisations such as GetUp!, by pushing tighter restrictions on their ability to campaign goes to the heart of the battle over freedom of political expression.

In New South Wales, this battle has been waged by the state Coalition government and was finally was resolved by the High Court in 2013 when it ruled that union donations to political parties did not contravene electoral funding laws.

Former Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell had argued: “The only way you can ensure that the public is going to have confidence about our electoral system is to limit [donations] to the individuals who are on the electoral roll. It must be limited to those Australian citizens who are enrolled, not overseas citizens and non-residents, because of course those people do not get the vote. They do not have a stake in the system and they should not be able to influence the system — and nor should unions, third party interest groups and corporations.”

But the High Court said the Liberal-National government changes to electoral funding laws in 2012 contravened the implied freedom of political communication contained in the Constitution. It ruled that the laws banning corporations and “associations” from donating to political parties in state and local government elections were invalid and making a political donation is a form of protected political communication.

The court rejected the state government’s claim that the new provisions were necessary to guard against political corruption, which outraged the Coalition government (and a section of the NSW Greens).

The systemic corruption and scandals over political donations to the major parties in NSW are well known and longstanding. And it is arguable that the small reforms to the electoral laws in any state have done little to rein in corporate donors, given the entire electoral system is tilted towards corporations and their parties. They will always find a way to exert their influence — as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull did, adding a cool $1.75 million to the Liberals’ campaign last year.

The move to clamp down on a campaigning organisation such as GetUp! is about shifting public scrutiny away from this serial corruption.

GetUp! has every right to campaign on the social and environmental issues it deems important. Obviously, elections are the time to focus people’s attention on parties’ positions. It is only now that it has grown from a network to an organisation that can mobilise activists to tip the balance in marginal seats that the state is seeking to impose limits on its ability to campaign.

Special Minister of State Scott Ryan said on October 24 GetUp! was adopting the “downsides of Americanised democracy”. GetUp! national director Paul Oosting told Skye News the same day that the movement of more than 1 million Australians was being smeared by senior figures in the Coalition government, including arch-conservative Eric Abetz.

“We judge all parties, politicians and for that matter corporations based on their positions on the policies that our members care most about. We have a Coalition government right now. When Labor were [sic] in power we campaigned heavily against them,” Oosting said, adding, “We are willing to take on any party, any politician and do so unashamedly and with full independence.”

AEC commissioner Tom Rogers told a Senate estimates hearing that the “review” of GetUp!’s status was being conducted in response to a request from a previous parliamentary committee. He denied the commission had been directed to undertake an investigation.

If GetUp! is to be classed as an “associated entity” of Labor or the Greens, then what can be said of Murdoch’s News.com? Murdoch uses his media stable to campaign for the political parties that will most advantage him and his board.

If Ryan was really worried about Australia’s slide into “the downside of Americanised democracy” he would not be trying to make it harder for people to find out about parties’ policy positions other than from News.com.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus summed up the political witch hunt of the AWU to the ABC’s 7.30, asking on October 24: “What is wrong with workers deciding they want to donate money to a political campaign because they think it is in their interest? What is wrong with that? That is called democracy.”

There are very strict laws governing electoral donations, as everyone knows. This is something else. This is yet another attempt to clamp down on political expression. This is a political witch hunt on a select number of member-based organisations which many trust more than elected officials from the corrupt and disintegrating two-party system.

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