"There is a clear agenda to silence the political voice of working people": Secretary of Unions NSW, Mark Lennon. Photo: Supplied
Unions fear conservative state governments are pushing to ''silence'' them nationally after Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia joined NSW in defending its political donations laws against a landmark High Court challenge.
A hearing is due to begin on Tuesday in the case which has been launched by Unions NSW and five unions in a bid to have the O'Farrell government's donations laws declared unconstitutional.
"Our election funding reforms were about cleaning up NSW politics": Premier Barry O'Farrell. Photo: AFR
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 by counting expenditure by unions against the total amount the party is allowed to spend.
Labor and the union movement have accused Premier Barry O'Farrell of using the laws, which he has cast as an attempt to reduce the influence of donations in NSW politics, to attack their ability to contest elections.
The unions will argue in the High Court that the laws restrict the freedom of political communication implied in the NSW and federal constitutions.
But in its submission NSW says there is no implied freedom of political expression in the state constitution and the federal constitution is not relevant because ''the conduct of state elections is confined to the states''.
The attorneys-general of Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia and the Commonwealth have ''intervened'' in the case to support the NSW defence.
The Commonwealth submission argues that while the laws ''effectively'' restrict freedom of political communication, ''they do so for ends that are plainly legitimate or permissible''.
The secretary of Unions NSW, Mark Lennon, said the decision to intervene ''shows there is a clear agenda to silence the political voice of working people, not just in NSW but across the country''.
''Working people have always pooled resources to express themselves politically,'' he said.
''The point of our case is to make sure that we can continue and we have robust political representation in this country.''
Mr Lennon said a system that only allows individuals to donate ''will inevitably favour parties sponsored by the wealthy''.
But Mr O'Farrell said the High Court challenge was about ''preserving the power and influence of union bosses with the Labor Party''.
''Our election funding reforms were about cleaning up NSW politics and ending Labor's decisions-for-donations culture,'' Mr O'Farrell said.
''The changes enable people to make up their own minds about whether or not to make political donations and put a stop to the practice of union bosses using members' funds to buy influence within the ALP.''