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Australia

Political Donation Transparency (AU0017)

Overview

At-a-Glance

Action Plan: Australia Action Plan 2018-2020

Action Plan Cycle: 2018

Status: Active

Institutions

Lead Institution: Department of Finance (with the Australian Electoral Commission)

Support Institution(s): Australian Electoral Commission Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, interested CSO stakeholders

Policy Areas

Legislation & Regulation, Legislative, Political Integrity

IRM Review

IRM Report: Australia Design Report 2018-2020

Starred: Pending IRM Review

Early Results: Pending IRM Review

Design i

Verifiable: No

Relevant to OGP Values: Pending IRM Review

Potential Impact:

Implementation i

Completion: Pending IRM Review

Description

Enhance the transparency of political donations and funding
Commitment Start and End Date
September 2078-August 2020
Lead implementing agency/actor
Department of Finance (with the Australian Electoral Commission)
Commitment description
What is the public problem that the commitment will address?
The Commonwealth funding and disclosure scheme. established under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 7978 (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 in PDF format 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. while consistent with the requirements of Part XX of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 7978. 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?

Ourambition is to ensure the Commonwealth's electoral funding
and disclosure scheme provides for the improved timeliness and
accessibility of relevant information. with regards to the financial
dealings of political parties and candidates. and others in the
electoral process. 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 the public: improving the accessibility of information provided to the public; and providing the public with more frequent and timely information
Additional information
JSCEM Inquiry

Milestone Activity with a Verifiable Deliverable
JSCEM Inquiry and reporting
Inquiry into 2016 election including relevant terms of reference – 12/31/2018
Government considers recommendations
1/1/2019 – 9/30/2019
Parliament and other relevant stakeholders consider Government decisions
1/1/2020 – 9/30/2020
Contact Information
Contacts
Resource Management Branch, Department of Finance
Electoral.policy@finance.gov.au
Other actors involved
Australian Electoral Commission
Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, interested CSO stakeholders

IRM Midterm Status Summary

2. Enhance the transparency of political donations and funding

Commitment Text:

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

Milestones:

  • JSCEM Inquiry and reporting
  • Government considers recommendations
  • Parliament and other relevant stakeholders consider Government decisions

Start Date: September 2018                                                                 End Date: August 2020

Editorial Note: This is a partial version of the commitment text. For the full commitment text, see the Australia National Action Plan available at https://www.opengovpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Australia_Action-Plan_2018-2020.pdf.

Context and Objectives
This commitment aims to review options for publishing political donations and expenditures in a more timely and accessible manner.

According to the Australian Electoral Commission, gifts and donations to political candidates and parties (including for states, territories, and associated entities) above a threshold [9] must be publicly disclosed. [10] Other bodies, including private corporations and charities, who make a donation to a candidate or political party, or incur political expenditures, must also publish any amounts above the threshold. [11]

Political candidates must also publish the total value of any election donations they received, any individual donations they received above the disclosure threshold, and the total elector expenditure incurred between the commencement of the election process and election day.

The rules around disclosing political expenditure were recently amended by the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018, which introduced restrictions on political donations by foreign entities and requires disclosure of contributions to entities who perform political campaigning. These entities, potentially including charities or non-profit groups, whose election expenditures exceed the threshold, [12] must register and provide an annual return in the same way as political parties and candidates.

All annual returns are publicly available for scrutiny through the Australian Electoral Commission on the first working day in the following February. [13] Therefore, some donations or expenditures may not be published for up to 18 months. Election returns have to be lodged with the Australian Electoral Commission within 15 weeks of the election, and they are published on the Australian Electoral Commission website 24 weeks after the election. [14] Therefore, election donations in the lead up to elections are only made public well after the election has been decided.

A number of reviews identify the need for greater transparency and timely accessibility of election expenditures, since the introduction of the current system in 2006. [15] Participants in the Senate Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations (which received 36 submissions from the public and held three days of public hearings) stated that the delayed exposure of political donations frustrated the objective of identifying and avoiding undue influence on politicians, and restricted informed decisions in elections. [16] Some participants also highlighted the difficulties of scrutinising the information available due to the manner in which it was presented. [17] The Select Committee recommended online, continuous, real-time disclosure of donations to political parties, candidates, and associated entities; and that the information be more accessible and usable. However, the incumbent government members on the Select Committee did not agree with the majority recommendation.

This commitment aims to increase available information about electoral expenditures to inform electors and reduce undue political influence. However, its terms do not directly provide for increased information to the public or improve public accountability. It is also unclear whether any provisions advance civic participation. Therefore, this commitment is of unclear relevance to OGP values.

Milestone 2.1 refers to the inquiry and reporting by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM). The Commitment provides a link to the inquiry by that Committee into the 2016 election, which was due to report by the end of 2018. That inquiry was established on 21 September 2016. The terms of reference for that Committee include “[t]he current donations, contributions, expenditure and disclosure regime, its application and timeliness and alternative approaches available to Parliament.” [18] That inquiry was also the subject matter of Commitment 11 of the first National Action Plan. [19]

The Joint Standing Committee published a paper on political donations in September 2017, which mentioned the perceived lack of transparency due to the untimely disclosures but did not specifically call for further submissions on this issue. [20]  Submissions were invited until 29 September 2017, with public hearings in September and October 2017. The only public hearings held in this inquiry after the second action plan began in August 2018 were in November 2018, and submissions from that hearing did not address the timeliness of disclosure of electoral expenditure.

The Joint Standing Committee provided its final report on the 2016 election in November 2018. The Committee proposed a number of reforms, including limiting political donations and expenditures, timely disclosures, lowering disclosure thresholds, and establishing an anticorruption body. [21] The Committee commented, however, that there would be time to review these and other reform proposals after the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018 was passed and implemented. [22]

As any submissions, information on public hearings, and reports of the Joint Standing Committee are generally available on the Committee website, it follows that the envisioned inquiry and report by the Standing Committee will also be publicly available. [23] However, government consideration of the report, as well as Parliament and other key stakeholder consideration of any government decisions on the report, may not be made public or result in tangible outcomes. This commitment overall is therefore not verifiable.

As described above, there is no clear commitment to increase civic participation through this commitment. The Joint Committee also did not make any recommendations to fix the timing and accessibility of election expenditure disclosure, and instead merely stated the need for further reviews of possible reforms in this area. It is therefore unlikely that any consideration of the Joint Committee report will enhance the transparency of political donations and funding.

Next Steps

This commitment continues the review of electoral matters that was the subject of Commitment 11 from NAP1. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters traditionally reviews matters arising from each federal election, [24] so it is likely that consideration of the timeliness of electoral expenditure disclosures will be considered during the review of the 2019 election. The timeliness and accessibility of information relating to political donations and election expenditures is important. The current timing has not been substantially amended since 2006. Therefore, there is limited benefit in holding a further review of this issue.

In its report on the 2016 federal election, the Joint Committee noted the large number of previous inquiries into political donations, and that “a degree of [submission] fatigue has set in.” [25] Therefore, future action plans should include a more ambitious commitment that implements recommendations from collaboration between academics, civil society, the Australian Electoral Commission, and other government agencies.

Consideration should also be given to evaluating the impact of reforms of electoral expenditure disclosures by the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018, including the impact of registration and disclosure requirements on charities and other non-profit organizations.

[9] The threshold that applied from 1 July 2017 to 30 June 2018 was AU$ 13,500; indexed each year based on increases to the consumer price index. See Australian Electoral Commission, “Disclosure Threshold” (25 May, 2020), https://www.aec.gov.au/Parties_and_Representatives/public_funding/threshold.htm.
[10] Candidates have to lodge an annual return with the Australian Electoral Commission by 20 October each year, providing details on the total amounts and individual receipts above the threshold. Disclosure of individual amounts greater than the threshold must include the name, address, and total contribution of each donor. See Australian Electoral Commission, “Financial Disclosure Overview” (accessed Jun. 2020), https://www.aec.gov.au/Parties_and_Representatives/financial_disclosure/Overview.htm. See also Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth), Part XX.
[11] See Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (Cth) s. 314AEB. Political expenditures are generally for the purpose of influencing electors in a federal election. Prior to 1 December 2018, “political expenditure” was defined through reference to various legislative provisions and included expenditures on the public opinions of politicians or issues likely to be raised in future elections. This definition was amended by the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018. Annual returns have to be lodged by 17 November each year and detail the total donations and expenditures from the prior financial year. Australian Electoral Commission, “Financial Disclosure Overview.”
[12] The threshold is electoral expenditures over AU$ 500,000 during that financial year or any one of the previous three financial years; or electoral expenditure over AU$ 100,000 during that financial year and electoral expenditures during the previous financial year if they are at least two-thirds of the revenue of the person or entity for that year. Australian Electoral Commission, “Candidates and political participants” (17 Oct. 2019), https://www.aec.gov.au/Parties_and_Representatives/index.htm.
[13] Australian Electoral Commission, “Transparency Register” (18 Sept. 2020), https://www.aec.gov.au/Parties_and_Representatives/financial_disclosure/transparency-register/.
[14] Australian Electoral Commission, “Financial Disclosure Overview.”
[15] See Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, “Report on the Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns” (2011); Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, “Review of the AEC analysis of the FWA Report on the HSU” (Sept. 2012).
[16] Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations, Political Influence of Donations (Commonwealth of Australia, Jun. 2018), https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Political_Influence_of_Donations/PoliticalDonations/Report_1.
[17] Id. at 76–77.
[18] Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, “Inquiry into and Report on All Aspects of the Conduct of the 2016 Federal Election and Matters Related Thereto: Terms of Reference” (Parliament of Australia, Nov. 2018), https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Electoral_Matters/2016Election/Terms_of_Reference.
[19] By the time of the development of the second national action plan, the Committee had released three interim reports on various other aspects of the 2016 election. For a description of these reports, see Daniel Stewart, Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM): Australia End-of-Term Report 2016–2018, (Open Government Partnership, Apr. 2020), https://www.opengovpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Australia_End-of-Term_Report_2016-2018.pdf, 49.
[20] Parliament of Australia, “Inquiry into and Report on All Aspects of the Conduct of the 2016 Federal Election and Matters Related Thereto: Review of Political Donations” (12 Dec. 2017), https://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=f729f0a8-c213-400d-b386-7d126ec6b4d9.
[21] Parliament of Australia, “Report on the conduct of the 2016 federal election and matters related thereto” (November 2018) at 134–142, https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/committees/reportjnt/024085/toc_pdf/Reportontheconductofthe2016federalelectionandmattersrelatedthereto.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf
[22] Id. at 143.
[23] Parliament of Australia, “Senate Brief No.4 – Senate Committees” (May 2020),  https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Senate/Powers_practice_n_procedures/Senate_Briefs/Brief04.
[24] For a list of reviews, see Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, “Committee Activities (Inquiries And Reports)” (accessed Jun. 2020), https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Completed_Inquiries/em/reports.
[25] Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Report on the conduct of the 2016 federal election and matters related thereto (Parliament of Australia, Nov. 2018), 124, https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/download/committees/reportjnt/024085/toc_pdf/Reportontheconductofthe2016federalelectionandmattersrelatedthereto.pdf;fileType=application%2Fpdf.

Commitments

  1. Strengthen Anti-Corruption Framework

    AU0016, 2018, Anti-Corruption

  2. Political Donation Transparency

    AU0017, 2018, Legislation & Regulation

  3. Data Sharing

    AU0018, 2018, Access to Information

  4. Improve Public Service Practice

    AU0019, 2018, Capacity Building

  5. Access to Information

    AU0020, 2018, Access to Information

  6. Enhance Public Engagement Skills in the Public Service

    AU0021, 2018, Capacity Building

  7. Independent Review of the Australian Public Service

    AU0022, 2018, Capacity Building

  8. Expand Open Contracting

    AU0023, 2018, Access to Information

  9. Whiste-Blower Protections

    AU0001, 2016, Anti-Corruption

  10. Beneficial Ownership Transparency

    AU0002, 2016, Anti-Corruption

  11. Extractive Industries Transparency

    AU0003, 2016, Anti-Corruption

  12. Combating Corporate Crime

    AU0004, 2016, Anti-Corruption

  13. Data Innovation

    AU0005, 2016, Access to Information

  14. Public Trust in Data Sharing

    AU0006, 2016, Access to Information

  15. Digitization of Government Services

    AU0007, 2016, Capacity Building

  16. Information Management and Access Laws

    AU0008, 2016, Access to Information

  17. Freedom of Information

    AU0009, 2016, Access to Information

  18. Access to Government Data

    AU0010, 2016, Access to Information

  19. Electoral System and Political Parties

    AU0011, 2016, Political Integrity

  20. National Integrity Framework

    AU0012, 2016, Anti-Corruption

  21. Open Contracting

    AU0013, 2016, Access to Information

  22. OGP NAP

    AU0014, 2016, Public Participation

  23. Public Participation

    AU0015, 2016, Capacity Building

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