Morris Iemma’s status as modern NSW’s worst premier is assured. Barrie Unsworth has demanded a recount, but the in-depth incompetence right across the park of the Iemma Government makes it no contest.

And yet, Iemma may still make a significant contribution to public life if his proposal to ban political donations and shift parties to public funding proceeds in NSW works, and shames other governments into also banning donations. That’s if Labor isn’t trying to be too clever.

This will only work if, at the same time as donations are banned, third-party political advertising is somehow restricted as well. For a demonstration of why such a restriction is necessary, look no further than the ACTU’s anti-WorkChoices campaign last year. It blew away the Howard Government’s own WorkChoices propaganda. And in response, the business community could only muster a too little, too late effort of its own that the smarter industry groups avoided like the plague.

For all their borrowing of Republican Party election tactics, the conservative side of Australian politics seems to have been strangely slow to grasp the importance of third party advertising.

In the event of a ban on political donations, and public funding of election campaigns, the ALP’s current advantage from its links with the union movement will simply shift to third-party campaigns. The expensive TV and print ads, the online marketing, the phone spam, the letterboxing – they’ll all remain, tens of millions of dollars’ worth, but they’ll come from the ACTU.

The Coalition will have to make do with whatever groups decide to risk advertising for them. It’s unlikely too many business groups will, particularly if the Government is polling strongly. That leaves wingnuts like the Exclusive Brethren. A restriction on third party political advertising during election campaigns would be the only way to prevent this imbalance.

We’ve been here before. In 1991, the Hawke Government – vigorously opposed by the Coalition – tried to restrict political advertising during election campaigns, only for the High Court, in Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v Commonwealth, to conjure up a hitherto-unknown “implied freedom of political expression” the following year. The decision was lauded by conservatives, including the then-Opposition’s shadow attorney-general, Peter Costello. It seems an activist judiciary is OK by conservatives when they agree with them.

So, should a ban on political donations and public funding of election campaigns proceed, conservatives will be in a difficult spot. Do they retain their support for unfettered free speech, or sit back and watch the union movement do all the ALP’s advertising for it?

The more paranoid in conservative ranks might even see in Iemma’s proposal a Labor wedge tactic. If so, perhaps they should target public funding of election campaigns. Voters may not like the idea of paying even more than currently for politicians to sell themselves to them. And without public funding, the ban on donations won’t go anywhere.

Peter Fray

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