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Tas Govt Continues to Delay Much-Needed Reforms

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Media release – Election Funding Reform Tasmania, 17 February 2021 Tasmanian government continues to delay much needed reforms The government’s long-awaited report on electoral reform fails to address the long-standing problem of secret and unlimited donations in Tasmania. It fails to even acknowledge this long-standing problem. In our submission to the Review, we called out […]

Media release – Election Funding Reform Tasmania, 17 February 2021

Tasmanian government continues to delay much needed reforms

The government’s long-awaited report on electoral reform fails to address the long-standing problem of secret and unlimited donations in Tasmania. It fails to even acknowledge this long-standing problem.

In our submission to the Review, we called out the government’s failure to identify any existing problem in the terms of reference with electoral gifts/donations requiring reform.

The problem is clear for all to see. The problem arises from large amounts of money being secretly channelled towards candidates and political parties. The problem was highlighted in the March 2018 election, with large amounts of money flowing into the Liberal party from the gaming industry and associated lobby groups.
This includes $57,000 in 7 individual donations from the THA on 1 March 2018, the day before the election.

Spokesperson for Election Funding Reform, Roland Browne, said: “Tasmania has a government so dependent on these dark donations it resisted reform for years. Meanwhile, the states up and down the eastern coast of Australia reformed their electoral funding laws. Then, when Tasmania finally moves, we see an orchestrated process of delay to ensure nothing happens (on gift/donation reform) until after the 2022 election at the earliest.”

This review puts off for ‘for further analysis’ and ‘modelling’ the critical reforms of:
• Public funding (rec 11);
• Donation/gift limits;
• Reform of donation/gift laws for the Upper House;
• The disclosure system (rec 3);
• The disclosure threshold (rec 3(b));
• Caps on electoral expenditure by candidates in the HoA (rec 4);
• Prohibited donations from lobby groups etc. (rec 9)

Mr. Browne: “This review was announced in mid-2018. Almost 3 years later it has produced very little in relation to electoral funding reform, and has failed to address the dark money and secret donations.”
“First, the government needs to reveal how much money it received in the March 2018 election. It needs to acknowledge the problem.”

“Next, the government needs to implement the recommendations of the Eccleston/Jay report from the University of Tasmania in 2018”.

We welcome proposals that will see:
• Aggregation of donations (rec 3(d));
• Candidates and parties being required to submit full returns;
• An online disclosure system (rec 3(f));
• Disclosure of donations to and by third parties (rec 8).

But Tasmania needs to see in the Bill to be tabled in Easter 2021:
• a disclosure threshold on donations and loans of $1,000 (as in most states and territories);
• an anonymous donor threshold of $1,000;
• a ban on foreign donations;
• public funding per vote and administrative funding (as in most states and territories);
• listed banned donor industries, including property development, gaming, tobacco (as in NSW and Qld).
• A limit of $750,000 per party per Lower House election (as recommended by Eccleston & Jay)
The ALP introduced a Bill in 2020, but that also has serious shortcomings, including:
• There is no ban on foreign donations. The ALP will permit donations from foreign governments.
• There is no ban on anonymous donations under $1,000, with anonymous donations in total OK up to $10,000. Parties in consequence can receive $10,000 in 10 smaller anonymous donations.
• Disclosure can be up to 30 days after the donation is received by the candidate or party. That has the consequence that everything received in the 29 days before the election is kept secret until after the election.
• A candidate [in a party] can spend up to $100,000 and a party can spend up to $40,000 x 25 = $1,000,000.
• There is no public funding.

Transcript of media conference with Roland Browne (Tasmanian Election Inquiry) and Eloise Carr (The Australia Institute), 17 February 2021

Roland Browne: We’re with Eloise Carr who’s newly with the Australia Institute as the Tasmanian Director is going to go first, and I’m Roland Browne from Tasmanian Election Inquiry.

Eloise Carr: The government’s recommended changes to Tasmania’s Electoral Act did not go far enough. The government has sat on the review for far too long to have such vague plans. Paying lip service to change does nothing to solve Tasmania’s democracy crisis.

Missing from the government’s plans are reforms to Right to Information, bans on donations from property developers and gaming companies, measures to strengthen the Tasmanian Integrity Commission and truth in political advertising laws.

We look forward to working with the government on the details and timeframes of the reforms. It is not enough for there to be a recommendation to set a disclosure threshold with such a broad range still being discussed. A donation threshold disclosure threshold of $1,000 is reasonable and $5,000 is far too high.

Six months is too long a time frame for disclosure of donations. The Australia Institute recommends disclosure within 24 hours during an election campaign and seven days outside of election campaign period. We also need to introduce spending caps for campaigns. It is not good enough for the government to say this will be considered at a later stage.

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The Australia Institute has previously published recommendations for much needed reform across the Tasmanian Integrity Commission, truth in political advertising, election donations reform and Right to Information laws. This is a missed opportunity for Tasmania to emerge as a national leader in good government.

Tasmanians are entitled to know the details of the proposals for reforms now. For them to weigh them up against other jurisdictions. The government has set on the review for too long to have such vague plans.

Tasmanian Times: Why do you think these plans are so vague?

Eloise Carr: That’s a very good question. That’s, I think, a question that all Tasmanians should be asking. We’ve published on what we think the reforms should be. And you know that they’re the details that that we think we should do. And with the strict timeframes, rapid turnaround, rapid disclosure, real time disclosure and reasonable thresholds.

Tasmanian Times: Effectively you’re saying that at the time a person goes to vote in an election they should be able to access all information about who has donated to which political party?

Eloise Carr: Yes.

Tasmanian Times: Is that currently in operation in any jurisdiction?

Roland Browne: You’re asking about real time disclosures. Yeah, that’s in Queensland. And Victoria.

Tasmanian Times: The premier said yesterday about possible public funding for election campaigns. Is that something you support?

Eloise Carr: Yes, I believe it is.

Roland Browne: So this all started for election funding reform back in the March 2018 election. And as a result of that a group was formed following widespread public concern about the huge amounts of money that were apparently spent in the course of that election, which was really focused around gaming reform, and the like, and that disclosure came out in February the next year, showing very large amounts of money going from interest groups to the Liberal Party, which had not been disclosed prior to the election.

There’s some real problems that arose for the government then. And in the middle of 2018, Will Hodgman announced – the then premier announced – that he was going to look into reform. And here we are almost three years later, and reform has almost been in a coma as far as it goes for electoral donation and funding reform. And I would encourage you to very carefully read the report that was issued yesterday or the review. Because the timing of that report, and the contents of that don’t add up.

In particular, if you look at page five, and page 68, they both refer to the legislation that was introduced into the Queensland parliament. And the report says that that legislation has been tabled, but doesn’t take it any further and at page 68, when it’s the reports talking about election funding disclosure limits, they leave that blank for Queensland, as if nothing’s happened in Queensland. Now, this is extraordinary because the Queensland electoral funding and integrity measures legislation went through the parliament in June of 2020. It was given Royal Assent at the end of that month, and it came into operation in August 2020. You have to ask yourself, what’s happened between August 2020 and February 2021, that this government in its supposedly wide-ranging review of electoral reform around Australia has completely missed the Queensland reforms, which are very much landmark reforms, they are very significant reforms in that state, which came from a very low base.

So what we have here is the Victorian, New South Wales and Queensland government’s, that’s right up the eastern seaboard, reforming their legislation to do with electoral funding and disclosure. And Tasmania looks at it, and identifies this is an issue that needs to be considered, but doesn’t go any further. And we’re told that they need to conduct some analysis. They need some data, they need to give consideration to these things. But why is that? Why is that in those three states on the eastern seaboard I mentioned, and in South Australia and North Northern Territory, reforms will happen. So Tasmania doesn’t need to wait to assess what’s a reasonable disclosure limit. It doesn’t need to wait for anything. And you can only conclude that this analysis, this collection of data is just a ruse to put off any further reform until after the next state election.

So the tragic position in Tasmania is that the dark money that flows through to the major parties, that has held the state back and has held election donation reform back for so many decades, is now holding this process back and they’re saying to the government don’t make any change before the next election. And the government’s going to do that, the government’s saying we’re not going to make any changes before the next election. And why is that? Because they want the dark money. They want that money that’s going to flow to them from the gaming industry, from obscure industries like the Caravan Association, like groups of pathologists. Why is this money from the mainland coming to the Tasmanian Liberal Party? What do they benefit? What deal has been put into effect?

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The other problem with the government’s approach to this is that it allows a lot of money to move from developers into the Liberal Party at the very time that we’ve had the Major Projects legislation go through where the government and the minister have complete control over what major projects are initiated, and then reviewed in this state, and it leaves open the possibility of manipulation and influence and a corrupted system. And we have maintained our concern about that for a long period of time. What needs to happen is all of this legislation, all of these reforms need to be introduced now and brought in before the 2022 election in Tasmania; nothing else will be satisfactory.

You have to look at the report to say the government’s agenda. They’ve dealt with all of the mechanics of the Act to do with fences, advertising, ballot papers, electoral redistribution, all of that has been dealt with up the front. And down the back they deal with the electoral funding reform and gifts, as if that’s not the big ticket item. But in fact, for the entire community, that’s what people are up in arms about. That’s what people came along to our public meeting about in March 2019. People see what’s happening and people are very concerned including people in the Liberal Party because the speaker of the House, a Liberal Party member, was at that meeting and made her presence known and indicated her concern for the failure to reform Tasmania’s electoral rules. So that’s where we stand: we want reform. We want reform as outlined in our media release, and we want it brought forward in the budget session of this parliament.

Journalist – Bob Burton: There are three Legislative Council elections in May, what should happen with those?

Roland Browne: Well, I think that the legislation needs to apply to the Legislative Council. I think it would be appropriate to do what was done in Queensland, which was stagger it in on a annual basis, so that some provisions of the Act didn’t commence for a year, and I think that would be entirely appropriate here. We shouldn’t get in the way of electoral electoral mechanics at the moment. But we have to start somewhere. We find it very surprising that the government hasn’t done anything about reform of transparency of donations for members of the upper house.

And while I’m at it, they’ve gone nowhere near local government and it’s inexplicable. And if you look at the legislation in Queensland that I referred to a moment ago that came in in the middle of last year. And I’ll just digress to point out while our government said, “we are too busy with COVID, to deal with this Tasmanian legislation,” Queensland managed to introduce their legislation and get it operational in that same year, right in the middle of COVID. Coming back to that bill, in Queensland, their electoral reform, they only have one house, but it covered the lower house and local government electoral donations as well. So they brought in a comprehensive package in the COVID year.

While I’m at it, I’ll just make one other observation. In the media release from the Premier yesterday and the Attorney General, they point to the fact that there’s no reference or indication from the Integrity Commission, that this legislation is necessary in Tasmania. And it is, and I rely on that as saying that everything’s clean. In fact, to us, it really is a reflection on the Integrity Commission, and its ambit and its remit, that it doesn’t actually get anywhere near dealing with this kind of activity. Its legislation doesn’t allow it to look into donations going to politicians, because it’s legal. You can shuffle tens of 1000s, hundreds of 1000s of dollars to the candidate of your choice at the moment. And it eventually gets disclosed down the track.

In my media release I’ve talked about the money that came to the Liberal Party on the first of March 2018. And I draw attention to that $57,000, the day before the election. Now, how is that a useful donation to a campaign? It’s too late for them to spend it on anything. The only way that money could be a useful donation to a campaign is if a promise had been made to pay it just before the election, providing there was some kind of quid pro quo offered, presumably at a policy level. We’re waiting for an answer to that. We’re still waiting for the Premier to disclose how much money the Liberal Party received in the course of the 2018 election. We won’t give up on that.

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Journalist – Bob Burton: So looking at the report on the key issues, there was very strong public support for stronger forms. The Liberal Party submission was very conservative. At best the government have gone for a mid-point between the two. Do you think that’s appropriate?

Roland Browne: Well, Bob, I think you might be overstating it when you say they’ve gone for a mid-point between the two, because right here and now they haven’t gone for anything on electoral funding reform at all. It’s all off into the never-never. They haven’t even said when they’re going to bring those reforms in. So there’s nothing on disclosure caps; there’s nothing on the register and how that will operate and when when that will be introduced; nothing on public funding yet; nothing on limits on spending by political parties or donations to political parties. They just haven’t bitten it. So in a sense, the conservative forces, that is the forces that want no change have actually prevailed because there is going to be no change on those, at least before the next election.

Tasmanian Times: Recent events in the USA have probably put it into the spotlight about what exactly is the nature of democracy and how does it get done. Why do you think the Tasmanian public is so complacent about our own democracy and the way that we manage it?

Roland Browne: But that’s a good question, Alan, but I’m not sure I agree that there is complacency. I think that a lot across a lot of these governance and public health issues, there’s a very high level of public concern and support. We’ve had polls that looked at gun laws for example, and put it up at 85%; polls in relation to climate change show very high level of public support for real change, and a new world order. And for election funding, I’m sure there’s a high level of public support. We saw that in our public meeting a year after the election when we had a full house at the town hall. We’ve had editorials supporting it, we’ve had letters to the editor. So I don’t think there’s complacency… inaction inactivity, yes. But that’s not complacency. And, sadly, in the COVID year, people have been tied up and they’ve had other things on their mind. But I think a poll would show resounding support for this kind of reform, not the government’s brand of reform, but real reform before the next election.

Journalist – Bob Burton: When you mentioned that thing on page five, is the implication of this report, it’s pretty well done in the first half of last year.

Roland Browne: Well, not only done then, but not completed. I mean, it’s extraordinary. They haven’t gone back, and they haven’t even noticed that that legislation has been introduced and, and promulgated and in effect. And it’s surprising to me, actually, because late last year, in the course of the Queensland election, there was quite a bit of media coverage, over some drama to do with developers getting donations in the course of party functions. Well, that was all from that legislation. You think that the Tasmanian government would have had its ear to the ground and thought, well, gee, maybe that legislation is coming into effect, yes they’ve obviously done this work in the beginning of last year, and then done nothing on it and haven’t gone back to it. They’ve just apparently changed the date to February 2021 and released it.

Journalist – Bob Burton: Do you understand what the changes were to federal legislation last year about providing statements of donation disclosures and so on?

Roland Browne: I’ve only read media reports of it. And my understanding isn’t firsthand. But they have legislated that money from developers, for example, can be given to federal political parties. So that will have that effect of overriding any state law prohibiting it. But that’s only money going to federal parties, so I’m not sure that it limits state money. So if you put the money into a federal party it can come back to the state, but if you put it into a state party, it’s not necessarily going to be caught by it. But I reiterate, that’s my understanding from media reports.

Journalist – Bob Burton: So at the moment it’s already in the history of the Liberal Party down here that they’ve received funding from various other Liberal party entities. All they have to disclose is where it came from. As to who wrote the check, but not where the other entity received the money from him.

Roland Browne: Yeah. Well, I don’t know how that’s going to operate in the context of those new federal rules. It’ll be very interesting.

MEDIA RELEASES: Political Donations Reform & Electoral Act Review.

Source: Tasmanian Times

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