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Making a secret donation in Tasmania? Count the ways

February 23, 2019

LET’S suppose you wanted to donate a large sum of money to a political party, because you wanted to see them adopt a particular policy you believed would benefit you or your company.

But you don’t want the Tasmanian public to know how much you have donated and neither does the party.

How could you go about it?

You could donate $13,499 — $1 below the Tasmanian reporting threshold — to each branch of a political party.

The Liberal Party has 62 branches in Tasmania, so there’s almost $850,000 no one would ever know about, except the select few in the party you want to influence, of course. Another option would be to set up a campaign yourself. This would involve more work but there would be absolutely no limits on the money you could spend.

You could cover Tasmania’s towns, cities, newspapers and television screens with advertising urging people to vote for your preferred political party or against their opponents.

You could fill people’s mailboxes and place ads through their social media feeds with no limit whatsoever.

The third option is the best of all. You could give as much money as you like to individual candidates. No limits whatsoever, no disclosure requirements whatsoever.

This is obviously a terrible suggestion, but the fact I can make it is a reflection of just how bad our current system of electoral laws are.

So bad, in fact, that by my count there are only 16 people in Tasmania who don’t want significant reforms to our political donation laws.

Only 16 people who aren’t angry, disappointed or disengaged because they feel like politics isn’t working for the needs of the people.

I am not one of those 16 people. One of the reasons I was proud to stand as a Labor candidate at the last election was that we had a strong suite of policies to address this serious issue.

Labor’s policy would lower the limit so donations over $1000 have to be declared with “real time” 14-day rolling disclosures. If parties have the time to cash a cheque they have the time to report who gave it to them.

We also want to see caps on spending by political parties.

Right now, a party could spend anything from $1 to $1 billion on campaign activity and nobody would be any the wiser. The same should apply to third parties, such as organisations like GetUp! or industry lobby groups. Ideas and policies that advance our community should matter more than money spent on advertising or billboards.

It is clear the Liberal Party is not serious about real reform to make elections truly free, fair and above board.

They have pushed back the deadline for public submissions on a consultation process they are running about changes to the Electoral Act. They have instead announced they will only introduce legislation to deal with administrative changes like nominations, postal votes and news coverage on polling day.

While the administrative changes are worthy — and needed — this is a cynical move by the Liberal Party to make it appear they are doing something about donations reform when the legislation they are introducing in March goes nowhere near it.

It also means we won’t see any reform before the end of this financial year, meaning political parties and intending candidates will have yet another year to freely raise as much money as their big donors will give them.

Labor also wants to see significant improvement in the laws and regulations that apply to candidates.

I was shocked and appalled when I was a new candidate to discover candidates do not have to declare donations they receive. Not to their party, the Electoral Commission or the public.

Labor believes this should change, and the donation disclosure requirements that apply to parties should apply equally to candidates.

Candidate spending is unlimited. That two candidates for the same seat could spend vastly different amounts does not make for a level playing field.

That’s why spending caps should apply to individual candidates, because honesty, values and connecting with the community should count for more than your bank balance.

Candidate spending caps exist for local government and Legislative Council elections, so there’s no reason they couldn’t exist for the House of Assembly. So what’s holding back the change we can all see is needed? Who seriously wants a system of government that can be described as ‘of the donors, by the donors, and for the donors’?

It’s those 16 people again. Who are they, I hear you ask?

Hint: there are 13 Liberal MPs in the House of Assembly, two in the Upper House and their state director, Sam McQuestin, who thinks the current laws are “working well”.

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