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Foreign political donations


Recently the subject of political donations from foreign interests has received considerable attention.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 (CEA) regulates donations to political parties and candidates. It does not distinguish between donors from Australia or overseas, or (effectively) between donors who are Australian citizens, non-citizens or organisations (there are certain provisions relating to donations and corporate insolvency, for example, which do not apply to individuals).

The CEA requires parties and candidates to know the name and address of a donor if the donation is more than the disclosure threshold (currently $13,200), and for donors and parties to submit an annual return at the end of each financial year. Details of the returns are published by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) for each financial year at the start of the following February.

According to the Political Finance Database of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), an intergovernmental organization that supports sustainable democracy worldwide, Australia is one of the few countries where donations from foreign interests to political parties or candidates is not prohibited. In defining ’foreign interests’, International IDEA includes entities that  ‘contribute directly or indirectly [and who] are governments, corporations, organizations or individuals who are not citizens; that do not reside in the country or have a large share of foreign ownership.’

Of comparable English-speaking democracies, only New Zealand allows overseas donations to parties, however overseas donations are capped at $NZ 1,500. While a number of European countries do not prohibit donations to parties from foreign interests, at least some, such as Germany, Spain and Switzerland, do have some restrictions on such donations.

Bans on donations from foreign interest to parties 

Source: Parliamentary Library based on data compiled by International IDEA

Allowing donations from foreign interests to candidates is slightly more common internationally, but again when comparable English speaking democracies are considered, only New Zealand also allows such donations (again with a cap of $NZ 1,500).

Bans on donations from foreign interest to candidates 

Source: Parliamentary Library based on data compiled by International IDEA

In Australia, there have been a number of attempts to ban foreign political donations at the federal level over the years.

In 2010 the Labor government introduced the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010, which amongst other things would have banned donations of ‘foreign property’. The Bill passed the House of Representatives, but was not proceeded with in the Senate and lapsed at the end of the 43rd Parliament.

Media reports indicated that the Australian Labor Party and the Coalition were attempting to negotiate a donation and disclosure reform bill in 2013; however no bill was introduced into Parliament or made public, so it is unclear whether banning foreign political donations was under consideration.

The Australian Greens restored a bill to the notice paper at the beginning of the current Parliament—the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2016—which seeks to ban donations of foreign property. The Bill was first introduced in 2014 and had lapsed at the dissolution of the 44th Parliament.

Early indications are that discussion of political funding and disclosure reform may well be a feature of the 45th Parliament.