The spectre of union donations

Enthusiasm for political donations reform is very welcome; there is a general feeling that the current system is too open to abuse. Some options – lowering disclosure thresholds, greater consistency across jurisdictions, real-time reporting of donations –make sense. But the desire to ban unions from donating to political parties reflects a regressively liberal and individualistic conception of democracy.

The argument for no longer allowing union donations goes something along these lines: representative democracy is a process of resolving disputes between various sectional interests in favour of the broader interest of the community. Democratic decision-makers must be able to discuss and argue among themselves free from any pressure other than rationality, the urgings of their conscience, and, if they are elected, the freely expressed will of their constituents. No one interest should have power to influence decision-makers. Rather, politicians should be free to exercise their rational judgment to arrive at the best outcome for the polity, with influence considered ‘undue’ when it involves a particular interest group having a ‘disproportionate’ influence.

This argument is typified by Tony Abbott’s input into the debate last week:

We need to look long and hard at restricting donations to real people on the electoral roll. To that end, there should be no union donations, company donations or foreign donations […] Obviously we don’t want influence buying, we don’t want subversion of our system.

Though these comments were aimed at maximising Abbott’s perceived influence in political coverage at the expense of Malcolm Turnbull’s, the sitting prime minister does not appear to have any objection to the idea of individuals donating ‘substantially’. (No wonder, when rugged individualist Gina Rinehart manages to personally contribute so much to the wellbeing of selected MPs.) Individualist sentiments are not the sole preserve of the Coalition either: take Richard Di Natale’s support for the banning of non-individual donations.

This individualist conception of political decision-making is not new to Australia. Indeed, it is fundamental to how those outside the labour tradition think politics should work. For evidence of this we can turn to Ross McMullin’s So Monstruous a Travesty, a history of the short-lived Watson ministry of 1904, Australia’s first federal Labor government and one of the first of its kind anywhere in the world. An editorial in the Hobart Mercury greeted the new government with horror:

Anyone who has had to deal with the Labour Party, such as it is in Australia, knows that it has no code of action, except to get what it can, and it is always ready to sacrifice the best interests of a country or community in order to gain some little supposed advantage.

The Mercury was joined in its disdain by the Daily Telegraph, which claimed the Watson ministry, ‘avowedly holds the interests of one section of the people paramount over those of all other sections’.

Throughout Australian history, Labor governments have been depicted as illegitimate because of their purported privileging of one sector of society – workers – above the good of ‘society as a whole’ (which critics think can be discerned rationally and organically). Judith Brett’s Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class offers the insight that Australian liberalism sees itself as more legitimate because it is not selfish or sectional; instead of being beholden to crass materialism, liberals selflessly advocate for the ‘common good’, however that is defined.

Liberals see a commonality between ‘union interests’ and ‘business interests’ – that is, that both are merely sectional. But there is great danger for progressives holding this view.

On a purely pragmatic level, the High Court has ruled that restrictions on the ability of unions to donate money to political campaigns violate the Constitution’s implied ‘freedom of political communication’.

Aside from constitutional frameworks, there is a more fundamental question: what kind of role do we want individuals to play in the political system? Are we trying to maintain some kind of abstract balance between competing interests, or are we aiming to give a voice to those who are disempowered? In the latter case, the individualist worldview is of little use.

Evidence suggests that restricting donations to individuals and imposing caps on donations, as took place in Canada, does not in itself reduce the imbalances that exist in the political system – wealthier individuals are still more prone to donate more. And just as with tax evasion, it’s the wealthiest individuals who have more incentive (and resources available) to circumvent the rules.

Of course, there is a strong argument to be made that union peak bodies in Australia are too narrowly focused on electoral wins instead of workplace-level organising for better wages and conditions. But this is not an argument that says unions should not be engaged in the political process.

Progressives who oppose the idea of union donations usually argue that unions are a regressive force – which is nonsense. Union donations have been essential to the rise of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. The recent conservative defeats in Queensland and Victoria could not have come about without contributions by unions, which is one reason why Tories like Abbott, Turnbull and Mike Baird are so eager to restrict union involvement and influence.

Union donations have been essential to countless progressive wins in Australia. Yes, union-based political campaigning must diversify to involve more targeted, issue-based campaigns that provide opportunities for recruitment and direct member engagement.  But to deny unions the most direct mode of collective political participation – donations and campaign expenditure – doesn’t advance the cause of working people, who currently have little relationship to politicians and little chance of shaping policies that govern their lives. Participating in electoral politics may not deliver everything for union members, but without it workers are acutely disadvantaged compared to the employer class, which already has so many advantages.

Interested parties are still going to find ways to exert influence over politicians and political decisions, whether through direct donations or through other means like third-party campaigns, just as the Gina Rineharts continue to exert enormous power inside and outside of the electoral sphere.

On workplace rights, on the environment, on racial, sexual or gender equality, the Left has learned time and time again that power comes from mass movements and grassroots organising. Any donations regime that restricts the ability of collective participation in politics and surrenders to liberal atomism is one that does not help build equality or a fairer society.



Chris ORegan

Chris O’Regan is a unionist in Brisbane. He’s @chrisjoregan on Twitter.

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