Concern Over Victorian Donation Law Reform Bill
There is concern amongst political observers about the Andrews’ Government’s Electoral Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 which aims to introduce stricter laws around political donations and disclosure in Victoria. Many believe the bill would severely restrict freedom of political communication in the state.
The Bill requires every group which raises more than $2,000 in a year and which participates in political arguments at state elections to comply with strict reporting and funding arrangements. This means the law wouldn’t just apply to political parties but any group which recommends voting for a party or candidate at a state election.
The bill would cap donations at $4,000 for each four-year electoral cycle for each individual or business and donations of over $1,000 in any fiscal year would require public disclosure with each citizen or group only allowed to use the threshold 6 times. When breaching the threshold both the donor and the group must disclosure this with penalities for non-disclosure of up to 2 years imprisonment or 200 penalty units.
Even though donations under $1000 do not need to be disclosed, donations over $51 must be recorded by groups with an address and/or ABN to monitor when the $1000 cap is reached. The effect of this bill, therefore, would be to severely limit the ability of any political group to raise private funds for campaigning in Victoria.
However the most controversial aspect of the bill is that to make up for the reductions in donations established political parties will gain extra public election funding, it will cost Victorian taxpayers $45 million over a four-year electoral cycle. Political parties will get $6 for every vote received in the Legislative Assembly, up from just $1.79, and $3 per vote in the Legislative Council. Added to that each MP will get a $40,000 annual “administration payment” from the taxpayer.
Also, each political party can nominate one entity that is exempt from the $4000 threshold in transferring funds to the party which signs off that it is both for the sole benefit and acts as a trustee for the political party. The Labor Party is apparently nominating Trades Hill to be their exempt entity. There is no limit on an MP or candidate donating to their own election campaign.
The influence of big money in politics frustrates both the public and the major political parties. Members of the public don’t like the idea that a politician could be influenced by a large donation they receive. Major political parties don’t like the fact that they constantly have to solicit for donations and would rather just focus on policy and campaigning. Some political operatives have stated they would like to see complete public funding for elections and all political donations banned.
The federal government is proposing a separate political donation reform bill under the guise of preventing foreign interference in Australian elections in the wake of the lengths Sam Dastyari went to solicit donations from a businessman linked with the Chinese government, an action that cost him his political career. This federal law would require a donation of over $250 made to a political advocacy group spending more than $100,000 on potential election issues to have a statutory declaration from a justice of the peace.
The Victorian law is far more restrictive than that proposed by federal government given that it actually sets a very low cap on what individuals and businesses can donate along with very strict reporting and disclosure requirements for any group that campaigns in a Victorian election.
The legislation could have a deterrent effect on people who honestly want to put their money into a worthwhile campaign hence limiting political speech. The fact that the it will cost the taxpayer $45 million over four years in funds going to political parties also diminishes the argument that the bill is about cleaning up politics. The fact the Labor Party was found to have ripped off $388,000 in taxpayer funds by using parliamentary staff to run organised field campaigns is also fresh in the minds of voters when hearing about such legislation.
The bill is currently before the state’s Upper House where the Andrews’ Government does not have a majority with it still unknown whether it has Coalition and crossbench support. A petition has been launched on change.org to lobby the Upper House to oppose the passage of the Bill as a final vote draws closer.