Analysis: Tasmanian Labor’s rationale for backing Liberals on political donations lacks credibility

Independents John Tucker and Lara Alexander say Labor didn’t contact them before claiming they opposed amending government bill
 November 1, 2023
Published:  November 1, 2023
In 2018, Labor pledged to back major political donations reforms. Five years later, under Rebecca White's leadership, the Labor party has dumped its amendments to the government's bill. Image: Bob Burton.

The Labor Party’s rationale for abandoning its amendments to the government’s weak and much-delayed political donations bill is profoundly flawed and could signal its waning appetite for backing needed changes even if it were to form the government after the next election.

In her brief speech outlining Labor’s rationale for its decision, the Leader of Opposition Business in the Legislative Council, Sarah Lovell, argued that any amendment to the Electoral Disclosure and Funding Bill would push the government to abandon the legislation altogether. She argued that a weak bill without amendments is better than having nothing in place before the next election.

Labor had previously indicated its intent to move amendments, including lowering the donations disclosure threshold from $5000 to $1000, capping campaign expenditures and increasing the frequency of donations disclosure. Labor also proposed amending the associated Electoral Matters (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2022 bill to require truth in political advertising.

Labor dropped these plans, Lovell said, because “we also know the Liberals and the ex-Liberal independents who still have a majority in the House of Assembly remain firmly opposed to these important measures”.

This is not accurate. The two former Liberal MPs turned independents, John Tucker and Lara Alexander, told Tasmanian Inquirer that Labor had not contacted them to discuss their position on the political donations bill. Tucker said he was open to the possibility of the House of Assembly discussing an amended bill, while Alexander said she hadn’t considered the issue yet. While passage of an amended bill would not be guaranteed, it remains possible.

Lovell’s claim that the government alone could delay debate on an amended bill is also inaccurate. A bill amended in the upper house is sent back to the House of Assembly with a resolution to debate it “on a future day”. However, a majority of the house can amend the motion and require the bill to be discussed immediately. Depending on the position of the cross-bench MPs, delay is not inevitable.

Lovell also said Labor had it “on very good authority” that the government had little appetite to “progress any reform at all”.

Perhaps. But it would be unsurprising if the government fed that line in Labor’s direction after the September 14 speech by Legislative Council MP Josh Willie, where he posed the question, “How far do we push the current government before the bill fails?” In politics, an indication that amendments have only half-hearted support from the opposition is viewed as an invitation for the government to increase pressure in the hope of scoring an outright win.

It remains unclear when Labor decided to abandon its amendments. Lovell was asked twice by Leon Compton on the ABC, but she did not answer directly. Tasmanian Inquirer also sought to clarify this point on two occasions but received no response from Labor.

The secrecy the Liberal Party’s corporate donors crave applies equally to Labor’s business backers.

There are other significant flaws in Labor's claims. Lovell claimed in a media release that former attorney general Elise Archer’s resignation statement indicated that “she was unsupported by her caucus to progress these reforms”. At best, this is entirely misreading the context of Archer’s comments.

What Archer said in her resignation statement was:

“To resign from the party last week was not done lightly but we [she and her husband] could not remain part of an organisation which, in more recent years, has not only blatantly failed to support me – particularly on difficult policy matters such as electoral reform – it has attacked me personally. I do not subscribe to their view that the Liberal Party got me elected; it is more a case that I got elected despite the Liberal Party; fundraising and personally paying entirely for my own campaigns.”

Archer is referring here solely to “the party” not supporting her on the political donations bill but does not mention the parliamentary caucus. Notably, the Liberal Party secretariat made two highly critical submissions on the political donations bill that Archer was progressing. Indeed, the submissions (see here and here) were so problematic that sections were redacted before public release.

Smoke and mirrors

Lovell also claims that if the bill stalled there would be “yet another election with no disclosure regime”. This is a flawed argument. The leader of the government in the Legislative Council, Leonie Hiscutt, clarified that the Tasmanian Electoral Commission may take a year to prepare for the new funding and disclosure system.

It means even if the bill sails through unamended with Labor support it is unlikely that the new regime will be in place if an election is held in 2024. At best, the new system may be in place if an election occurs in early 2025. It certainly won’t be in place for the May 2024 elections for the Legislative Council seats of Hobart and Prosser.

In short, Labor’s rationale for abandoning its amendments rings hollow. It didn’t bother speaking to the two crucial former Liberal cross-bench members but chose to assume the worst about their voting intentions, it has misunderstood Archer’s comments and inaccurately suggested the new system will be in place before the next election only if the government bill proceeds unamended.

What to make of all this?

The policy switch comes as Labor seeks to bolster its image as a business-friendly alternative to the Rockliff government. For example, Labor leader Rebecca White has co-hosted media conferences with the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Property Council in the last week.

The secrecy the Liberal Party’s corporate donors crave applies equally to Labor’s business backers. Supporting the government’s bill defuses much of the political risk of a pre-election disclosure of the ALP’s potentially controversial corporate donors.

Even if all of Labor’s arguments for dropping its amendments are taken at face value, the party has a significant financial incentive to get a weak bill passed promptly.

The government’s proposed bill includes $6 per vote in public funding for every candidate with more than four per cent of the primary votes. One little-noticed provision in the bill allows registered parties contesting House of Assembly elections to apply for pre-payment of public funding at 50 per cent of the amount applicable from the vote achieved at the previous election. This provision alone could be worth more than $125,000 to the Labor party based on the results of the 2021 election.

While Labor says it remains “entirely committed” to its policy, including the $1000 disclosure threshold, history suggests it is far from guaranteed that it would pursue them if it won the next election. When last in government, the ALP introduced a narrow bill to ban tobacco donations. It was rejected by the Legislative Council. A decade later, it still has no plan to revisit it - its policy does not include banning tobacco industry donations.

Labor has defended its latest position as a “pragmatic” decision, but this is a double-edged sword. Commitments made today in an outbreak of pragmatism could be victims of tomorrow’s reading of the political tea leaves. Before the 2018 election, Labor was against poker machines in pubs and clubs but since its election loss it has refused to support even the mildest of amendments to the government’s gambling bill.

Labor now faces a credibility problem of its own making. Why should anyone take seriously its claim that it remains committed to electoral reform?

There is a simple way it could demonstrate its resolve. There is nothing stopping the Labor party from voluntarily disclosing all donations over its proposed $1000 a year cumulative threshold, starting now. Will it? Attempts to get a response from a spokesperson for the opposition and Labor state secretary, Stuart Benson, were unsuccessful.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based author, researcher, editor and freelance journalist. He is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments for the US-based non-profit group Global Energy Monitor. His freelance journalism has been published in a wide range of news outlets from the British Medical Journal to the US-based PR Watch.

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