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Proposed speech on the Local Government Electoral and Other Legislation (Expenditure Caps) Amendments Bill 2022

On Tuesday 18 April 2023 Queensland Parliament debated the government's Local Government Electoral and Other Legislation (Expenditure Caps) Amendments Bill 2022. The Government cut debate short which meant that I didn't get to speak on the bill. 

Here is the speech I would have delivered if I had a chance. 

I rise to speak on the Local Government Electoral and Other Legislation (Expenditure Caps) Amendments Bill 2022.

We will be supporting this bill for the positive steps it takes towards a fairer and more transparent democracy, where the interests of the people, and not corporations, are represented on local councils. 

As the one party in here that doesn’t take money from corporations, The Queensland Greens have long called for political donation and expenditure reform to level the playing field between working Queenslanders and the top end of town, who have spent millions buying off the Labor Party and the Liberal National Party for years. 

This bill limits some types of campaign spending by candidates and parties in local council elections. We absolutely agree that you shouldn’t be able to buy an election. We do not want a US-style election system where the highest bidder wins government, and voters absolutely deserve better. 

I hope that these changes will force the major parties to rethink their campaign tactics - the endless spending on insubstantial, corporate-funded advertising that turns ordinary people off the whole process altogether. How about this: if you want to convince someone to vote for you, get out there and talk to them about your policies… if you have any worth talking to them about, that is.

Particularly with the growth of the Greens in Brisbane, maybe this’ll force Labor and the LNP to do some soul searching at the next election. Can they come up with any policies that’ll actually improve ordinary people’s lives? Will they try talking to their neighbours, when they can no longer just bombard them with flashy ads? I guess we’ll see. 

Together with the ban on property developer donations, spending caps will go some way to reducing the influence of corporate donations on these elections. So I have to applaud the Labor Party on this, because despite rolling in corporate money - fossil fuel money, consultant money, pokies money - have decided to put the health of our democracy ahead of their ability to spend as much of that money as possible influencing elections. 

Nonetheless, it’s important to keep in perspective the enormity of corporate influence in Queensland politics and how modest these reforms are in that context. 

Corporate influence stymies progress on some of the biggest issues affecting people’s lives, from fair wages and affordable housing, to access to healthcare and education, to tackling climate change. 

Rather than build public housing and cap rents, Labor lets the REIQ draft their rental policy and delivers tax concessions to big developers. Rather than chart a path out of reliance on fossil fuel exports, Labor backs in new coal and gas. 

Every major party politician owes their position in no small part to the corporations who paid for their campaigns. Every single one of them has run using fossil fuel money, pokies money, money from big insurance firms and the private electricity retailers who are ripping Queenslanders off.

A substantial amount of the millions of donations the Labor and the LNP receive come straight from lobby groups. Labor and Liberal alike have no problem accepting money from businesses whose stated purpose is to buy influence and manipulate political decisions.

It’s not a secret. It's a historical public fact, and the excuse that we hear from Labor and the LNP when they try to tell us that it’s not corruption, is that it’s completely within the rules to take millions of dollars from corporations in return for political favor. 

But legalising corruption doesn’t make it any less corrupt. If anything, the cancer of corporate lobbyists is spreading through Queensland politics and it is harder and harder to tell the difference between all the landlords and the corporate shills swapping places in government seats and corporate boardrooms. That both major parties accept this as normal only serves to demonstrate how blatantly self-interested politics has become.

This bill, just like the developer donations bill this government brought in last term or the lobbying bill we dealt with in this one, is not about tackling corruption. It’s about adding a thin veneer of acceptability to a rotten political structure, so that the Labor Party can pretend it’s doing something about corruption. But it’s clear that both the LNP and the Labor party, who’ve both been wholly captured by the fossil fuel and gambling lobbies, are the corruption problem.

Labor and the LNP know that if they continue to dole out public money and make decisions that favour their donors, then the donations will keep coming. 

And every one of their politicians know that if they toe the line during their time in office, they can pretty reliably predict that there will be a fat salary waiting for them on the board of execs or as a lobbyist for one of these big donors.

If there is going to be a pipeline of funding, tax breaks, and ludicrous contracts to big business from major party governments in return for political donations, then it’s right that we limit how much of that money can be spent on election materials. 

There is far less justification for the way this bill treats third parties, including charities and not-for-profit NGOs. Rather than making local council elections more democratic, this bill risks chilling third-party advocacy and public debate on the issues that ordinary people care about. The Queensland Law Society raised concerns about this in its submission.

I spoke about this back in 2019 in relation to the state-based spending caps and it seems the government has not learned its lesson. It has not shifted from its position that free community and non-government sector advocacy is unimportant, or perhaps even something to be stifled. 

The Greens support including third parties, such as lobbying groups, in the registration, reporting and expenditure cap framework. But this bill is drafted so broadly that charities and NGOs fighting for justice, without even referring to a political party or candidate, could be captured. 

As I said in 2019, while community groups and charities rely on donations, industry associations and corporations receive membership fees, subscriptions and levies. Corporations have commercial revenue streams. Even unions receive membership fees from workers. In this sense, this bill will again disproportionately restrict charities’ ability to do important advocacy work, even where it’s unclear whether this advocacy is election-related, far less than it will impact corporations and industry associations.

No doubt third party advocacy, for example by environmental groups, represents an increasing threat to a government that repeatedly ignores evidence and the public interest in favour of their own interests and that of their corporate mates. I bet they want to limit how many signs you see around election time calling for climate action or renters’ rights - people might start looking at parties’ policies and vote accordingly, and we know that wouldn’t turn out too well for Labor or the LNP. 

There is a very real risk that these restrictions could have a chilling effect on the advocacy work of not-for-profit third parties. It’s important that support and guidance around this issue is readily available from ECQ. Limiting materials that are intended to ‘otherwise influence voting’ or that include ‘expressions of political positions which are associated with a party or candidate’ unduly limits free political expression. Restrictions like this are anathema to the stated purposes of this bill. 

Again, the other spending caps in this bill are small steps towards ending the legalised corruption that rules Queensland politics. They will mean less corporate influence at election time and reduce the major parties’ ability to buy their way into power, and we welcome those changes. But without banning corporate donations altogether, cracking down on lobbying and closing the revolving door between politicians and corporations, corporate influence will continue to corrupt our democracy and make life harder for ordinary people.

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