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House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

3 - Elections and the electoral system

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Public funding and financial disclosure

Pending legislation

The pending legislation referred to throughout this section is the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Political Donations and Other Measures) Bill 2010.[152] While this bill was expected to be replaced following the 2011 report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters,[153] the committee was generally supportive of the changes that are described below as ‘pending legislation’. For a definitive account, legislation in force at the time should be consulted. Current information is available on the Australian Electoral Commission website.

Public funding for elections

Responsibility for the operation of the system of public funding[154] is vested in the Electoral Commission.

Principal features of the provisions include:

To be eligible for public funding political parties must be registered with the Commission.

For each valid first preference vote received a specified amount is payable, which is adjusted half yearly in accordance with increases in the Consumer Price Index. For the 2010 general election the amount was 231.191 cents.

Pending legislation limits the amount of public funding calculated on this basis to the amount of electoral expenditure in certain specified categories actually incurred.

No payment is made in respect of candidates or groups who do not receive at least four per cent of the eligible votes polled (that is, valid first preference votes).[155]

Funding for candidates endorsed by a party may be shared between the relevant State branch and the Federal secretariat of the party.[156]

Financial disclosure

The Commonwealth Electoral Act requires political parties, candidates and other persons involved in the electoral process to submit returns, either following elections or periodically,[157] to the Electoral Commission disclosing electoral expenditure and detailing political donations received and given. Returns are made available for public inspection on the Electoral Commission website.

In summary, returns are required from candidates,[158] political parties and associated entities, third parties who have incurred or authorised electoral expenditure, and donors. Government departments and agencies must also provide information in their annual reports on payments made to advertising agencies, and market research, polling, direct mail and media advertising organisations.[159]

The requirements for returns are complex and are subject to pending legislation. Up-to-date information on disclosure requirements is available on the Electoral Commission website.

Disclosure threshold

Political donations and receipts above the disclosure threshold must be individually identified in returns. The disclosure threshold was set at $10 000 in 2006, the amount to be indexed annually to the consumer price index. From July 2010 to June 2011 the amount was $11 500. Pending legislation reduces the threshold amount to $1000 (not indexed).

Unlawful gifts and loans

It is unlawful to receive gifts of a value greater than the disclosure threshold where either the names or addresses of the donors are unknown at the time the gift is received. Loans of more than the disclosure threshold may not be received other than from a financial institution unless details of the source and conditions of the loan are recorded. Pending legislation reduces the amount of a donation that can be received anonymously to $50. Pending legislation also prohibits donations from foreign sources. The amount or value of a gift or loan received in breach of these provisions is payable to the Commonwealth.[160]

Offences

It is an offence punishable by a fine to fail to make a return if required to do so, to make an incomplete return, to knowingly provide a return containing false or misleading information, or to fail to retain records relating to matters which are or could be required to be set out in a return.[161] It is also an offence to fail or refuse to comply with notices relating to investigations authorised by the Electoral Commission, or to provide false or misleading information to such investigations.[162]

Pending legislation modifies the penalties for certain of these offences, providing for greater financial penalties and the possibility of imprisonment, and creates new offences for the unlawful receipt of foreign or anonymous donations.[163]

Failure to provide required returns does not invalidate the election of a candidate.[164]


152. The bill was passed by the House and was introduced in the Senate in November 2010, but at the end of 2011 had not progressed further.
153. Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, Report on the funding of political parties and election campaigns, Nov. 2011.
154. Public funding was introduced by the Commonwealth Electoral Legislation Amendment Act 1983 (effective 1984).
155. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report, op.cit., recommended that successful candidates below the threshold also receive funding.
156. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, ss. 294–302, 321.
157. Annual—biannual under pending legislation.
158. Most candidates in fact submit ‘nil returns’, as in practice donations are received and electoral expenditure is incurred by political parties and the details shown in the relevant periodic returns.
159. E.g. payments over the disclosure threshold to advertising, market research or polling organisations, Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 311A.
160. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, ss. 306, 306A.
161. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, ss. 315.
162. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, ss. 316.
163. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters report, op.cit., recommended that less serious offences should be subject to administrative rather than criminal penalties, but that penalties for more serious offences should be strengthened.
164. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 319.