Charities welcomed Kate Chaney MP’s positive step towards shining a light on secret donations by introducing the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Restoring Trust) Bill 2023 (Cth) (Restoring Trust Bill) to the House of Representatives on 7 August 2023.
The Restoring Trust Bill proposes thirteen changes to electoral and political donation laws, aimed at bolstering democratic integrity and rebuilding public trust in the electoral process. This Bill represents ongoing efforts by the parliamentary crossbench to strengthen electoral rules, ensuring that politicians act with integrity and in the public interest and that voters have a meaningful choice at the ballot box.
Charities, through the #OurDemocracy alliance, have long been campaigning for many of the reforms reflected in the bill, including banning lies in political advertising, lowering the disclosure threshold and expanding the definition of “gift” to include political fundraising dinners and membership fees. These reforms are critical to shining a light on secret donations and the pay-to-play tactics used by harmful industries and wealthy individuals.
The #OurDemocracy alliance warned, however, that extending real time donation disclosure to third parties will suppress their advocacy, for little public interest benefit. The administrative burden on charities engaging in advocacy in the lead up to elections is already significant; adding the risk of penalties for getting the laws wrong, will discourage charities from speaking up at a crucial time for public debate.
The groups also raised concerns that the narrow category of those having their political donations capped, would leave loopholes open to exploitation by harmful industries and wealthy donors. While the groups applauded the intent, mechanisms for limiting money in the political system need careful scrutiny.
Importantly, the Restoring Trust Bill also seeks to level the playing field so that new entrants can meaningfully contest those seeking re-election, who enjoy the name recognition and public funding that come with being in parliament.
The charities congratulated Kate Chaney on her efforts to restore trust and integrity in our electoral system.
“This Bill is an important step towards rebuilding trust in our electoral system through greater transparency. 40% of donations¹ at the last election were not disclosed, and shining a light on these secret donations is critical to unveiling the pay-to-play tactics of the fossil fuel, alcohol, property development, gambling and consultancy industries.” Saffron Zomer, Executive Director of the Australian Democracy Network.
A healthy Australian democracy works for all of us, not just for the powerful few. This Bill is a welcome first step to limiting the influence of harmful industries and wealthy individuals on our democracy. We will continue working across the Parliament to ensure that community and charity voices are not unintentionally silenced by these reforms.
Alice Drury, Senior Lawyer, the Human Rights Law Centre
Trust in our democratic system is being undermined by wealthy individuals and corporations selling harmful products using secrecy and political donations to skew laws and regulations to favour their interests. Ms Chaney’s Bill takes a number of steps to create more transparency and close off some of the existing loopholes that are exploited.
Mark Zirnsak, Senior Advocate, the Uniting Church Victoria & Tasmania Synod.