#OURDEMOCRACY RESPONSE to joint standing committee on electoral reform draft recommendations

The Joint Standing Committee for Electoral Matters have released their draft recommendations on changes to the way elections are run in this Country.

The good news – The committee has indicated an appetite for crucial reforms to strengthen our democracy and get big money out of politics! This is a huge win for our community and is a testament to the hundreds of submissions, emails and calls we’ve made together over the last year.

Read on for our detailed analysis of the draft recommendations and how they stack up against our policy positions.

Our analysis

We’ve summarised our reform priorities as a series of principles, with policy detail sitting beneath each principle. A summary of our analysis is pictured, with detailed notes below.

Principle 1: Secret political donations should be banned

What did the Committee recommend?Why we gave this score
Recommendation 1: The Committee recommends that the Australian Government lower the donation disclosure threshold to $1,000. 

Recommendation 2: The Committee recommends that the Australian Government introduce ‘real time’ disclosure requirements for donations to political parties and candidates. 

Recommendation 3: The Committee recommends that the Australian Government gives consideration to amending the definition of ‘gift’ in the Electoral Act to ensure it meets community expectations of transparency in political donations.
Recommendations 1 to 3 will help ensure (if implemented well) greater transparency that is timely so that any donations of $1,000 or above will be disclosed in real time for political parties and candidates. This would likely meet a key ask in the Framework for a Fair Democracy. 

Requiring political parties, candidates and associated entities to disclose donations over the threshold within seven days of receipt would make the role that money plays in our political system much more transparent.

The Committee has recommended the federal government “give consideration” to broadening the definition of ‘gift’ in the Commonwealth Electoral Act. It is vital that the government broaden this definition to include contributions for access to politicians, such as fundraising tickets to events and membership subscriptions to political parties’ business forums. If it doesn’t, millions of dollars in “dark money” will continue to flow through our political system each year.

Principle 2: There should be a limit on how much anyone
can donate to politicians

What did the Committee recommend?Why we gave this score
Recommendation 4: The Committee recommends that the Australian Government introduce donation caps for federal election donations.

Recommendation 4 of the report supports donation caps to political parties and candidates — a necessary reform to ensure people can no longer buy influence with politicians by bankrolling their election campaigns. This meets the ask for donation caps in the Framework for a Fair Democracy. 

The report stops short of recommending what the donation cap figure should be, but provides some sound guiding principles for the government to consider. #OurDemocracy recommends the donation cap be set at $20,000 — a figure that will allow new entrants, who generally don’t benefit from public funding, an opportunity to raise enough money to have a profile; but not enough money to buy major influence with a candidate or political party.

One potential concern is the exclusion of “party membership fees, subscriptions, levies and association fees” — these forms of income can have the same corrupting effect as donations, and broad exceptions could create loopholes that undermine the integrity of the entire system.

Principle 3: Sensible spending caps should ensure
no one voice can dominate an election

What did the Committee recommend?Why we gave this score
Recommendation 5: The Committee recommends that the Australian Government introduce expenditure (also known as spending) caps for federal elections.Recommendation 5 of the report supports the government introducing spending caps in elections, which is a major step forward and a key pillar of the Framework for a Fair Democracy. It is also accompanied by some solid principles for setting the cap so that it levels the playing field between different political movements, and reduces the influence of big money in politics. 

That being said, the report doesn’t recommend what the spending cap should be. If the spending cap is set too low, new entrants in elections may struggle to achieve the name recognition needed to get votes. If it’s set too high, it could undermine the importance of having the spending caps in the first place.

Principle 4: Reforms should be proportionate and carefully targeted to ensure they don’t inadvertently silence community voices

What did the Committee recommend?Why we gave this score
Recommendation 6: The Committee recommends that donation caps and expenditure caps apply to third parties and associated entities.

Extending donation caps to third parties is anti-charity. It singles out one type of third party — those that rely on donations — for discriminatory treatment. It will stifle organisations that advocate for a healthy environment and public health, but give a free pass to third parties which don’t rely on donations, like mining companies and tobacco companies.

Limiting philanthropic donations to charities serves no public interest purpose. The motivation for capping political donations is to reduce the risk of improper, corrupting, or undue influence posed by political donations. In this sense, political parties and candidates represent a much higher corruption risk than third parties. Consequently, the motivations for regulating donations to each are different.

The primary objective for applying a cap on donations to third parties is to prevent the donation cap on political parties being circumvented by the setting up of third-party organisations that will campaign on behalf of the political party. This concern can be addressed by capping donations to associated entities, not third parties. 

The only way to regulate third parties fairly is through expenditure caps. 

Principle 5: New laws should not favour sitting members over challengers, or prioritise any one political movement over another

What did the Committee recommend?Why we gave this score
Recommendation 5, subset 2.253, Re: Spending caps: They should also be based on the evidence the Committee received, which may include having regard to the below features (excerpt)
– being set per House electorate and Senate state or territory, while also being capped at a national level
– being higher for independent candidates, noting they generally have less existing structural support than candidates endorsed by a national political party
– applying to associated entities and significant third parties in a proportionate way

Recommendation 9: The Committee recommends the Australian Government introduce a new system of increased public funding for parties and candidates, recognising the
impact changes a reformed system will have on private funding in elections.
The report includes some important commentary on ensuring reforms “level the playing field” between established parties and new entrants, and the report cites it as a relevant consideration for the government in setting donation and spending caps. However the recommendations stop short of detailing how this might be done, and do not support a public funding model that would see new entrants benefit from public money in the same way that established political parties do.

Principle 6: Politicians should not be able to lie in their advertising

What did the Committee recommend?Why we gave this score
Recommendation 11: The Committee recommends that the Australian Government develop legislation, or seek to amend the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, to provide for the introduction of measures to govern truth in political advertising, giving consideration to provisions in the Electoral Act 1985 (SA).

Recommendation 12: The Committee recommends that the Australian Government consider the establishment of a division within the Australian Electoral Commission, based on the principles currently in place in South Australia, to administer truth in political advertising legislation, with regard to ensuring proper resourcing and the need to preserve the Commission’s independence as the electoral administrator.
It is heartening to see the report support a key aspect of the Framework for a Fair Democracy and recommend truth in political advertising laws, similar to those already in force in South Australia, be introduced at federal level. While not perfect, the Australian Electoral Commission is currently best placed to regulate disinformation in election campaigns.

What’s next?

The #OurDemocracy campaign broadly welcome the recommendations and congratulate the committee for proposing a set of reforms that could go a long way to getting big money out of politics. However – The devil will be in the detail, and we’re very concerned about the risk that the proposals as they stand could suppress community voices at election time.

We encourage the government to work with civil society to make sure all changes to the Electoral Act make our democracy truly fair and open.