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Enhance the transparency of political donations and funding

What are your views on enhancing the transparency of political donations and funding?Lead implementing agency/actor

Department of Finance (with the Australian Electoral Commission)

Commitment

What is the public problem that the commitment will address?

The Commonwealth funding and disclosure scheme, established under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (the Electoral Act) specifies arrangements for the public funding of federal election campaigns, and the disclosure of funding source.  The objective of the scheme is to provide transparency and inform the public about the financial dealings of political parties and candidates, and others involved in the electoral process. The scheme requires relevant organisations and individuals to lodge an annual return with the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). 

Annual returns are published on the AEC website at the beginning of February for the previous financial year. Different arrangements apply to elections.  Election disclosure returns are published by the AEC on its website 24 weeks after polling day. The delay between transactions being entered into, and their disclosure, detracts from transparency and affects the ability of the public to form judgements about political parties, candidates and other actors that seek to influence election outcomes, and to apply that knowledge in exercising their franchise.  This is particularly the case in an election context where the voting public is not informed of donations or electoral expenditure prior to casting their votes.

What is the commitment?

Australia will investigate options for enhancing the timeliness and the accessibility of relevant information, through enhancing the electoral funding and disclosure scheme.  

How will the commitment contribute to solve the public problem?

Our ambition is to develop meaningful options for reform of Commonwealth electoral law to enhance the existing electoral funding and disclosure scheme and build on other, related, reform.  This will support increased transparency and increase public confidence in Australian democracy.  

Why is this commitment relevant to OGP values?

This commitment will advance the OGP values of transparency and civic participation by giving due consideration to:

  • improving the accessibility of information provided to the public
  • providing the public with more frequent and timely information

Additional information

JSCEM Inquiry page: https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Electoral_Matters/2016Election

Milestones

Milestone Activity with a verifiable deliverable

Start Date: End Date:

JSCEM Inquiry and reporting

Inquiry into 2016 election including relevant terms of reference. Q4 2018

Government considers recommendations

Q1 2019 Q3 2019

Parliament and other relevant stakeholders consider Government decisions

Q1 2020 Q3 2020

Contacts

Resource Management Branch, Department of Finance: electoral.policy@finance.gov.au

Other actors involved

State actors: Australian Electoral Commission

CSOs, private sector, multilaterals, working groups: Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, all third party and political campaigners required to register with the Australian Electoral Commission

Discussion question

Is this draft commitment specific, relevant, and ambitious?

 

To participate, you’ll need to register for an account. You’ll then be able to respond to the questions under each of the proposed themes, leave a general comment or respond to those of other participants, and vote on comments.

We expect your comments to be respectful and relevant. As comments are moderated, they won’t appear until they’ve been approved. If, after submission, you do not receive a notification stating that your comment has been queued for review, your submission has not been successfully transmitted to us. In this case, please email your submission to ogp@pmc.gov.au and we will publish it on your behalf. Comments will close 8 July.

If you wish to make a longer submission, you can email us at ogp@pmc.gov.au. We’ll publish all submissions we receive.

The outputs from this and the face-to-face consultations will be made available to the Open Government Forum. At its meeting in July, the Forum will be asked to consider feedback and make final recommendations to government on the form of Australia's second Open Government National Action Plan 2018-20.

 

Submissions and comments received via email

Comment

 

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Open Government...

The Canberra consultation to finalise the National Action Plan were held on 27 June and were attended by four participants from civil society. The following comments below were received from participants on this draft commitment.

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Open Government...

The Melbourne consultation to finalise the National Action Plan were held on 29 June and were attended by 23 participants from civil society. The following comments below were received from participants on this draft commitment. 

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Peter Timmins

A commitment to "investigate options" is not a commitment to a specific substantive outcome.
The commitment taken as a whole is hardly ambitious or transformative either.
We should aspire to something better, stronger than this.
Plenty of possibilities given that we have a mishmash of laws at federal and state level with loopholes everyone can and does jump through.

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Open Government...

Dr Colleen Lewis has provided the comment below:

What is the public problem that the commitment will address?

This commitment focuses on real time disclosure. It is a vital component of any open, transparent and accountable political donation regime. Not having real time disclosure (within 24 hour of receiving a donation) forces the electorate to cast an uninformed vote.  People are prevented from knowing crucial facts that could well influence their vote.  These include, but are not limited to, the name of the donor, how much they donated in cash and in kind, who was the recipient of the donation and the date they donated. However, the depth and breadth of the public problem with Australia’s current Federal political donations regime extends far beyond real time disclosure.  It encompasses other elements of the Federal political donations system including:  the banning of some donors; caps on donations; disclosure matters (other than real time disclosure); grossly inadequate penalties for breaching political donation laws;  the extent of public funding; “pay to play” schemes; and the election funding “arms race”.

The omission of the vast majority of the key elements of Australia’s political donations scheme, identified above, means that the Open Government Partnership’s (OGP) stated values of openness, transparency and accountability are not comprehensively addressed in this commitment.  All elements of the Federal political donations regime should have been identified and they need to appear in the final National Action Plan 2 (NAP 2).  It is important that they are included, as the sorry state of the national regime is one of the key factors impacting on the widening trust deficit between elected representatives and civil society.  Civil society rightly feels let down by the current opaque system, as it is not designed with the public interest in mind. Instead it focuses on the interests of political parties and candidates and facilitates hiding the identity of original donors (my emphasis) from the public gaze.

What is the commitment?

A strict timeline is needed here.  Australia has been “investigating options for enhancing the timeliness and the accessibility of relevant information, through enhancing the electoral funding and disclosure scheme” since at least 2008.  At that time, Senator John Faulkner, in his role as Special Minister of State, issued the Electoral Reform Green Paper: Donations, Funding and Expenditure.  It examined problems inherent in the system and recommended how many elements of it could be reformed to deliver a more open, transparent and accountable political donations regime.  In 2011 the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) issued a 268-page report that recommended changes to the Federal political donations regime.  The report was totally ignored by the Government.  It claimed too much time had lapsed since the report was written to act on the recommendations. The reason for the time lapse was Government inaction.  The only tangible outcome from the 2008 and 2011 reports was the spending of taxpayers’ money on examining and reexamining the options for reforming the political donations regime.

How will the commitment contribute to solve the public problem?

Unfortunately, for the reasons outlined above, the NAP 2 draft plan in relation to political donations will not contribute to solving the public problem and indeed may exacerbate it. The NAP 2 is using non-action words here.  Expressions such as “Our ambition is to …”, tells civil society very little if anything about outcomes.  Exact, precise results-oriented commitments are needed as an “ambition” can go on for years and never be achieved. It appears that the NAP 2 intends to “build on other, related reforms”.  Exactly what are they, what precisely will the NAP 2 build on and how? What concrete outcomes will be achieved?  This is the type of information that civil society requires if the widening trust deficit is to be narrowed. It is also necessary if civil society is to have any faith in the Open Government Partnership it funds.

Why is this commitment relevant to OGP values?

The draft plan is suggesting that this commitment will “advance the OGP value of transparency and civic participation (original emphasis) by giving due consideration (my emphasis) to:

  • Improving the accessibility of information provided to the public
  • Providing the public with more frequent and timely information. 

What remain unclear is exactly what “due consideration” entails and what actions will accompany it.  It is possible to duly consider something time and time again but do nothing.  This is the history of reforming the Federal political donations regime in Australia.  The draft plan also needs to make it clear how the public interest will be advanced through the OGP and its NAP 2 commitments.

The phrase “improving the accessibility” used in this section of NAP 2 is relative to the amount of information currently provided to the public.  If there is totally inadequate access to information at the moment, which many experts in the political donations field argue there is, “improving accessibility” may deliver very little.  This expression is far too vague and should be rewritten so that it reflects precisely what information will be made public as a result of the OGP’s NAP 2, and when.

Exactly what does “more frequent and timely information” mean in practice?  This commitment needs to be placed in the context of the current Federal donations regime, and the nature and timing of the information it delivers and presently fails to deliver.  After this information is provided to civil society through the final NAP 2, the Australian community also needs to be told what actions will be implemented to change the current unacceptable system.  I know I am about to repeat myself but given the current state of affairs some points are worth repeating: civil society knows very little about precisely who is giving what amount of money and to whom prior to casting their vote. They need and want this information.

Additional information

This section refers people to the current Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters inquiry into the 2016 election, which includes the political donations regime.  Additional information should be added that lets civil society know that this Standing Committee is obliged to review all matters pertaining to Federal elections after each election has been held.  It should also provide additional information on the outcomes of all previous attempts by other JSCEMs to reform Australia’s political donations regime.

Government considers recommendations

The consideration of recommendations does not take place until 2019, by which time another election will have been held (my emphasis). This means that the opaque laws that currently prevent openness, transparency and accountability in relation to most elements of the Federal political donations regime will still exist when voters next go the polls.

Parliament and other relevant stakeholders consider Government Decision

The timeline for this is 2020 (my emphasis),

This timeline confirms that little change will take place to the current Federal political donations regime before Australians next cast their vote. Nor does it appear to take into account that the next Parliament will result in the appointment of new parliamentary members to JSCEM and they will be charged with  examining the Federal political donations regime.  Where does this timeline leave the current JSCEM’s report on the political donations regime, which I presume is forthcoming?

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Open Government...

Dr Colleen Lewis has provided the comments below:

  • The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters already has a standing remit to consider the issues, but its 268-page 2011 report was ignored as was the 2008 Green Paper.
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