How can we level the playing field on political donations

Continuing its trend of exposing the weaknesses of Australian democracy, Clive Palmer recently announced that his United Australia Party will run the most expensive campaign in Australian history in this year’s election, topping $80 million spent in 2019.

While it’s no news that our weak federal political finance laws are in desperate need of an overhaul, this blatant threat to try to buy off the outcome of the country’s upcoming election should give our parliamentarians enough momentum that they finally act.

Clive Palmer announces the United Australia Party candidates – including himself – for the federal election.Credit:Zach Hope

Looking ahead to the 2022 elections, a key measure of the robustness of candidate integrity platforms is their commitment to political finance reform. This means the imposition of caps on election spending and donations, a strengthened disclosure regime, increased public funding and an Australian Election Commission properly resourced and empowered to enforce a strengthened framework.

The UK, New Zealand and Canada, as well as almost all Australian states and territories (Victoria and WA being the outliers) currently impose limits on campaign spending, with some only capping party and party spending. applicants and others also targeting associated entities and third parties.

Spending caps exist for good reason: as Lord Bingham of Cornhill, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, warned, if the ability of political parties to access the media is commensurate with their resources, elections are little more than an auction.

In addition to creating an environment in which parties with more resources can communicate more frequently and with more members of the electorate than their less well-resourced rivals, uncapped campaign spending incentivizes candidates and parties to compete for donations that allow them to outspend their opponents, potentially making them captives to private interests.

Uncapped election spending incentivizes candidates and parties to compete for donations.

Uncapped election spending incentivizes candidates and parties to compete for donations.Credit:Louie Douvis

Meaningful political finance reform also means imposing caps on donations, a greatly reduced disclosure threshold, and aggregating donations for cap and disclosure purposes. Again, Commonwealth laws in relation to these matters are weaker than those in other Australian jurisdictions. Donations are not capped and only those over $14,500 must be disclosed, with the lack of an aggregation requirement meaning donors can avoid the disclosure regime by making multiple donations of $14,499 to different branches.

Then there is the issue of the unduly narrow definition of ‘donation’ in Commonwealth Elections Act, which excludes income from things like party fundraising and corporate sponsorship of business forums and must be expanded. Transparency would be further promoted by real-time disclosure of donations, as well as quarterly reports providing categorization and aggregates of donations.