Before being passed into law, more needs to be done to improve transparency surrounding the funding of political parties in Tasmania, writes Jolene Elberth.

Elections should be contests of ideas, not competitions to find out who has the deepest pockets to buy the loudest voice. 

As a charity working to protect Australia’s environment, the Australian Conservation Foundation knows what it’s like to come up against cashed-up campaigns at elections, like the mining industry’s well-resourced efforts to block climate action at the federal level.

A fortnight ago, the Rockliff Government introduced two bills to improve the transparency of money flowing into the political system so Tasmanians can know who is funding political parties and wielding influence. 

While this is definitely a move in the right direction and will increase transparency of funding to political parties and candidates, loopholes in the legislation mean transparency for others who spend big at elections like corporations, industry groups – commonly referred to as third-party campaigners – will be minimal and requirements will be easy to dodge.  

If these laws are passed, Tasmania will still have the weakest regulation of organisations that campaign in the country.

Unless they are strengthened, the new laws will do little to stop big industries, including the gambling industry, from outspending all other voices in an election campaign.

Under the proposed laws, organisations will only have to declare the source of their political expenditure if it is received for the ‘purpose of incurring’ political expenditure. This is nonsensical. Most donations come ‘untied’ – with no stipulations about how they are used. 

The source of a donation should be declared if and when the money is spent on election advertising, regardless of the purpose of the donation at the time it was made. The intent or purpose of a donation is very hard to prove and the disclosure obligations will therefore be easy for donors and recipients to circumvent, merely by being vague about its purpose when the donation is given.   

In other jurisdictions, including at the federal level, all donations over the threshold that are used to incur electoral expenditure must be disclosed.

Under the Tasmanian legislation organisations spending big at elections will only have to declare donations that are given during a narrowly defined election period.

Worse still, under the Tasmanian legislation organisations spending big at elections will only have to declare donations that are given during a narrowly defined election period. 

Anyone who wants to avoid transparency needs only donate outside this timeframe to, somewhat magically, avoid all transparency requirements. 

These are glaring loopholes that undermine the integrity of the reforms. 

The proposed laws also miss a major opportunity to limit the amount of money that flows into our political debate by capping how much can be spent on campaigning, as is already done in Tasmania’s upper house.

ACF and other groups that champion political integrity want to see electoral expenditure caps that would limit the amount any single organisation or individual can spend trying to influence election results. 

Spending caps – like those that already exist in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory – are the best way to tamp down the enormous amounts of money spent on advertising around elections. 

They set limits on how much money politicians, corporations, unions and charities are allowed to pump into election campaigns. 

Tasmanians need no reminding of the way heavily-funded corporate campaigns can block reforms and sway election results. The relentless gambling industry campaign to defeat pokies regulation during the 2018 state election will still be fresh in people’s memories.

Charities, and the charitable advocacy we undertake, are also regulated under electoral laws like the ones the Government is proposing. So ACF has a keen understanding of how these laws operate in practice and we take our compliance requirements seriously. 

It’s precisely this firsthand experience in complying with these laws that gives us an insight into how these laws will operate in practice – and how crafty political operators could circumvent them. 

We highlighted these flaws in the proposed laws in a joint submission to the state government with the Australia Institute Tasmania and the Human Rights Law Centre back in October last year. 

The bills proposed by the Rockliff Government are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but the loopholes relating to third parties must be closed before these bills are passed into law. 

Yet transparency is only part of the solution.

Limits on how much can actually be spent in election campaigns would help stop cashed-up interests from being able to buy the loudest voice. This would move us closer to restoring equity to election debates.

Jolene Elberth is the Australian Conservation Foundation’s democracy campaigner

This piece was published by The Mercury in Hobart.

Jolene Elberth

Democracy Campaigner @ the Australian Conservation Foundation 🌏 Reluctant tweeter. An 🇺🇸 in Oz and loving it. Opinions my own.