The system of electoral funding in Australia is broken and is in need of urgent reform. While countries such as New Zealand, Canada and the UK have acted to fix problems in the funding of elections, Australia has moved in the opposite direction.
Five years ago, New South Wales Greens MP Lee Rhiannon asked me to lead a research project on political donations. While we were only dealing with the donations side of electoral finance, my experiences over the past five years on the research project have clearly shown me the problems with the entire funding system in our country - problems seriously exacerbated by the 2006 change to the federal electoral law by the Howard Government.
Every year the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) releases the details of the money all registered political parties received the previous financial year (see www.aec.gov.au). The purpose of our project was to group donations into industry categories and present this information in a way the public can find the material online in an easy and useful way.
All amounts of $1,500 and above are reported to the AEC and identified by name and address of the contributor - until December 2005 when the Howard Government raised the disclosure limit to over $10,000. The disclosure threshold will rise every year since it is linked to the Consumer Price Index. For the 2006 - 2007 financial year the source of all donations under $10,300 will be hidden from the public gaze.
The AEC web site is of limited use for the public since it is difficult to see which companies and organisations donate over the years to which divisions of the political parties.
For example, it you want to see how much the Australian Hotel Association (AHA) has donated to the New South Wales (NSW) division of the Labor Party for the past seven years, you would need to make seven different searches of the AEC site and laboriously add up the many donations made by that organisation each year.
Since these donations have been grouped on our web site www.democracy4sale.org one search will show you that the AHA and its NSW president has made 76 contributions to NSW Labor totalling $723,496 over the past seven years.
In addition, the type of business a donor engages in is not given by the AEC. Therefore, we have categorised the donors by industry groups. For example, if you are interested in money given by property companies to the parties, using one search on our web site you can see how much the property industry has donated to the political parties in NSW and federally.
This type of search can be done for one year or groups of years, by political party or groups of political parties.
I believe the AEC should construct their site in a similar way so the public can find information more easily. People increasingly rely on the Internet for information, and the AEC is failing us in this respect, as are various state electoral commissions.
Transparency of the sources of money for the political parties is important. But transparency also means that donations made to parties should be noted continuously and immediately. We live in the digital age, and weekly posting of donations on the AEC site and the sites of the states’ electoral commissions is not only possible but crucial. Voters need to know who is supporting the parties and consequently expecting access to politicians before they cast their votes. Seeing this material months after an election is almost useless.
However, many further changes to our laws governing electoral funding need to take place. The major parties appear to be in a race to raise more and more funds for elections. In order to acquire this money the political parties and individual candidates hold large and expensive fund raising events. At some of these dinners a person can spend thousands of dollars to sit at a table with a government minister or even the prime minister.
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