From The Sydney Morning Herald December 18, 2013: The High Court has overturned laws that banned corporations and associations from making political donations in state and local government elections.
In a stunning, unanimous judgment, the court ruled that key parts of the laws are invalid, upholding a challenge by Unions NSW.
The ruling means the relevant sections of the laws, introduced by the O’Farrell government in February last year, must now be repealed.
It is a huge win for the union movement and state Labor, who claimed the laws were a targeted attack.
The court found that the laws were invalid because they breached the implied freedom of political communication contained in the Constitution – the closest thing that Australia has to right of free speech.
The court also overturned the section of the laws that placed a cap on the total amount a political party and any affiliated organisation of that party could spend on political advertising and related election material. This, too, was found to breach the implied freedom of communication.
Opposition Leader John Robertson hailed the decision as “a big win for democracy”.
“This was an attempt by Barry O’Farrell to Americanise our political system by ensuring only the rich can contribute – and it has failed.”
Unions NSW assistant secretary Mark Morey welcomed the decision, saying “the court has spoken very loudly to confirm people have the right to come together, to put their money together, to participate in the political process”.
He said the laws were more than an effort to weaken the Labor Party, they were “attacking community groups and church groups who dissented to the government’s position on a range of issues”.
The case was launched by the peak body Unions NSW and five unions in a bid to have the NSW government’s donations laws declared unconstitutional.
The laws ban corporations and associations from making political donations in state and local government elections in NSW.
They also restrict how much the Labor Party and its affiliated unions can spend on advertising during an election campaign by counting expenditure by unions against the total amount the party is allowed to spend.
Premier Barry O’Farrell is expected to comment on the decision later on Wednesday. He had pitched the laws as an attempt to reduce the influence of donations in NSW politics.
But Labor and the union movement said it was an attack on their ability to contest elections. The unions argued that political donations, including those by corporations, are a form of freedom of expression that need protection.
The NSW Greens supported the government’s push for political finance reform, despite divided opinion within the party.
Greens MP John Kaye said the court ruling meant ”there will be damage done by reopening NSW politics to the flood of corporate dollars”.
But he added the surviving provisions that limit the size of donations and spending and the bans on money from the tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries and developers ”will protect the state from the worst aspects of democracy for sale”.
”The High Court has created a new set of constraints on limiting campaign donations. It will take a deal of creative thinking to achieve the important objective of cleaning up state politics and driving out the corrupting influence of corporate donations,” he said.
This article is from the Sydney Morning Herald.
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