The Australian Greens believe that our democracy is richer, more inclusive and more meaningful when a diversity of voices is able to participate in election campaigns and be heard. For democracy to function effectively, it is also critical that policy positions are well articulated and subject to rigorous and informed debate throughout election campaigns (and beyond).
The 2019 election highlighted a number of key issues that continue to undermine this ideal. In particular, the election demonstrated the threats to the integrity of elections posed by unrestricted campaign spending and false or misleading advertising.
This inquiry presented an opportunity to seriously examine those issues, and to discuss ways to reform the electoral system to increase fairness, equity, transparency and accountability.
Instead, the majority report presents a vitriolic attack on democracy, and on those voices that the government perceives as threatening their business model. It ignores the numerous submissions calling for campaign finance reform and misses the opportunity to promote more rigour in claims made in political advertising.
The Chair’s anti-democratic, ideological frolic is entirely unsupported by the evidence presented at hearings to the inquiry.
The Greens strongly oppose the Committee’s Recommendation 2 to replace compulsory preferential voting with optional preferential voting. Compulsory preferential voting is a cornerstone of Australian democracy and helps to promote greater diversity in the MPs and Senators elected to our parliaments.
The Greens believe that efforts should be directed at improving voter literacy regarding how the preferential voting system works and why a vote can never be ‘wasted’ by choosing one candidate or party over another more established party. The persistence of the ‘wasted vote’ myth inhibits many voters from expressing their true political intention as they cast their vote. Many voters are under a misguided impression that to ‘make their vote count’, they have to vote for a party that will form government in order to ‘stop the other side from getting in’.
That the AEC develop a campaign to improve voter literacy regarding the operation of the preferential voting system to dispel the “wasted vote” myth.
That the AEC review its training materials for polling booth officials and issue clear talking points to all its polling booth staff about how the Senate voting system works and that these talking points are also conveyed verbally to booth workers when they are briefed by the senior AEC worker at their centre.
That the government and the AEC review savings provisions to maximise the votes that are able to be counted when a voter’s intention is sufficiently clear.
The Greens oppose Recommendation 4 that the question of increasing the threshold for tax-deductibility of donations to political parties be considered by a further inquiry.
Donations from corporations and influential individuals have a corrupting effect on Australian democracy. We oppose increasing the amount of money people can donate to political parties, let alone encouraging greater tax-deductibility. As outlined in our additional comments below, we believe that we need to get the influence of big money out of politics, not encourage it.
The Greens oppose Recommendation 21, which proposes that voters be required to provide identification at polling places.
In response to recent amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to allow some flexibility in the way in which voters are asked questions to determine their eligibility, the Greens noted concerns that this would be a slippery slope to Voter ID.
We were assured it would not, yet this recommendation confirms our concern.
As noted in our dissenting comments to the 2016 election review report, voter identification requirements have serious implications for voter engagement for many groups of disadvantaged voters, including itinerant and indigenous voters as well as those escaping domestic violence. There is no evidence to suggest that voter fraud is a significant issue that warrants the risk of disenfranchising these voters.
The Greens support the continuation of the media blackout, currently administered under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.
We acknowledge that the provisions do not apply to digital media and no longer provide a complete “blackout”. However, the blackout remains an important mechanism to moderate the impacts of last-minute advertising blitzes by the most well-resourced parties.
We recommend that the media blackout be reviewed with a view to extending restrictions on commercial radio and television broadcasters to include social media.
The Greens oppose the suggestion in Recommendation 27 for by-elections to be replaced by an alternative method of selecting a replacement MP. By-elections provide an important opportunity for the community to democratically determine who they want to represent them in the event that their elected representative steps down.
6.Participation in Campaigns
6.1.The Greens oppose Recommendations 17 and 18.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 already imposes significant restrictions on the participation of organisations in electoral activities. The upcoming review of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018 may provide further insight into the operation of current rules but, in the absence of a detailed and specific assessment, there is no evidence to support the view that more draconian restrictions should be applied.
Recommendation 26 proposes non-fixed four year terms for the House of Representatives.
Fixed terms elections remove the strategic advantage afforded to the incumbent government in exercising their discretion as to election dates. Currently, the government can call an election when public opinion is most favourable to the government. They can ride out scandals. They can strategically ramp up advertising on key issues ahead of a public announcement of the election date.
Minor parties, new parties and independents with less capacity to plan, prepare and fund election campaigns are significantly disadvantaged by the ad hoc nature of election dates.
Fixed term elections would remove this advantage and level the electoral playing field. Fixed term electoral cycles will also facilitate public electoral funding and spending caps, provide clearer timelines for authorisation of materials, and allow the AEC to plan more efficiently for polling places and the necessary intake of temporary employees to assist with elections.
The Australian Greens support Recommendation 8 that the pre-poll period be limited to two weeks prior to election.
Longer pre-poll periods place significant strain on volunteer resources, compress the time available for finalising electoral materials, and encourage parties to delay the announcement of key policies until late in the campaign.
We also note Recommendation 12 regarding measures to facilitate earlier counting of pre-poll votes. As the number of votes cast during the pre-poll period continues to grow, we support consideration of ways to speed up the counting of votes and availability of results from pre-poll centres.
It is important that the AEC continues to ensure that pre-poll voting centres are inclusive and accessible, and staffed by well-trained officials.
Unchecked private funding of election campaigns leads to undue influence and corruption, and the sidelining of less well-resourced voices.
The 2019 election saw ad space monopolised by unprecedented investment by Clive Palmer. The advertising expense for the United Australia Party was estimated to exceed that of the ALP and the Coalition combined. While his extensive ad campaign did not win him a seat, his blanket exposure across key seats drowned out more diverse voices. There is credible analysis that his misleading attack ads on opposition parties influenced the outcome of the election.
Spending caps, a ban on corporate donations, and public funding for political parties would go a long way toward levelling the playing field and facilitating broader participation and debate.
The majority of submitters to this inquiry who addressed election funding advocated for caps on campaign spending, subject to protections to ensure third parties were not gagged from engaging in legitimate advocacy activities.
In line with the majority of submitters, the Greens support measures to cap spending for Federal elections, with the amount of the cap to be informed by spending data and consultation with affected parties.
The Greens have previously recommended that Australia consider electoral funding rules similar to those applying in Canada prior to 2011. In addition to banning corporate donations and strong caps on individual donations, that model provides standardised public funding for political parties. The public funding amount includes party administration and broadcasting time in federal elections, reducing the need for reliance on donations from vested interests.
Campaign spending was also capped for both political parties and third parties, thereby avoiding the constitutional difficulties arising from differential limits, such as those imposed under NSW legislation and overturned by the High Court (see Unions NSW v New South Wales  HCA 1).
That the government introduce reasonable caps on campaign expenditure by political parties, candidates, and registered third parties.
That the government introduce a system of public electoral funding for election campaigns and administration of political parties, with funding set at a reasonable level that reduces corporate influence on political decisions, while ensuring political parties are able to participate effectively in the democratic process.
Committee Recommendation 3 proposes amending the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to ‘include new offences for siphoning money through intermediaries… to avoid transparency’.
While we support the recommendation, this is rich coming from a government that very recently amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to allow donors and political parties to dodge strong disclosure rules, banning and capping donations at the State level. As outlined in the Greens dissenting report on that Bill, the amendments effectively allow donations to be siphoned through Federal parties to avoid more rigorous State laws.
That ss.302CA and 314B of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 be repealed.
Government pre-election spending
The Australia National Audit Office has confirmed a long-term trend of increased campaign expenditure before elections. This was evident again in advance of the 2019 election when millions of taxpayer dollars were spent on ads promoting government initiatives just prior to the Federal election being called. This is in addition to the flagrant pork barrelling and use of grant funds to sure up electoral support.
The Australian government’s Guidelines on Information and Advertising Campaigns by non-corporate Commonwealth entities (Department of Finance, December 2014) and the Independent Communications Committee that oversees compliance with the guidelines, is intended to provide confidence that taxpayer-funded campaigns are rigorous, targeted and non-political. But successive reviews by the National Audit Office have criticised the broad discretions given to government and the lack of compliance options. The most recent review concludes:
The persistence of debate over the use of public resources for certain government campaigns indicates that the framework has not achieved its primary purpose of building confidence and is therefore ineffective in respect to this outcome. In these circumstances, there would be merit in the Parliament and Australian Government revisiting the framework.
The ANAO recommends making all information and advertising campaign principles in the Guidelines mandatory, strengthening compliance, and certifying media releases associated with government campaigns to ensure they remain non-political.
We also note that there have been seven instances of the individual members being granted additional resources under the ‘exceptional circumstances’ provisions of the Parliamentary Business Resources Act 2017 prior to the 2019 election. For example, Senator Ian Macdonald was authorised to spend $25,000 on printing and advertising within 2 months of the election additional to his general office expenditure. While the ads promoted a government flood relief program, they were heavily branded with Senator Macdonald’s name and photograph.
That the government implement the recommendations of the Australian National Audit Office, Performance Audit Report: Government Advertising: June 2015 to April 2019, regarding strengthening the guidelines for government advertising campaigns.
That the government strengthen oversight of the ‘exceptional circumstances’ provisions under the Parliamentary Business Resources Act 2017 to ensure expenditure is limited to genuine parliamentary business and not used for political campaigning purposes.
The influence of corporate donors on policy outcomes is plain for all to see. We need a rigorous regime for limiting and disclosure of donations, and electoral funding to ensure accountability and transparency.
The current disclosure threshold under the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 is too high and does not include fundraising dinners, attendance at events, membership fees, investments and loans. This permits significant private financing of political parties and candidates to avoid proper scrutiny and is out of step with much lower thresholds applying in all Australian jurisdictions other than Tasmania.
Even if caught by the threshold, disclosures are only made public many months after the election. As a result, the public are not informed at the time of casting their vote who is funding campaigns and influencing policy positions.
This inquiry has missed an opportunity to strengthen transparency and integrity in relation to political donations and campaign financing. Much of the commentary on donation reform in this committee’s report into the 2016 election (see Chapter 6 in particular) remains relevant and should be revisited.
The Greens continue to call for a range of reforms to provide a more rigorous and transparent political donation disclosure regime, including:
including membership fees and pay-for-access events in the definition of ‘gift’;
disclosure of all donations over $1,000 on an easy to search, public website in close to real time;
an aggregated cap on donations from one donor of $3,000 per parliamentary term;
a complete ban on donations from developers, banks, mining companies and the tobacco, liquor, gambling, defence and pharmaceutical industries to political parties, candidates and associated entities.
Any reforms to donations and election spending must be supported by the introduction of a strong federal integrity commission to investigate and act on any non-compliance. Greater transparency and enforcement will be critical to rebuilding public confidence in political parties.
That the government implement the recommendations made by the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the Political Influence of Donations.
That the government adopt the Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Banning Dirty Donations) Bill 2020.
That the government establish a strong, independent and accountable national integrity commission, ideally by passing the National Integrity Commission (No 2) Bill 2019 that passed the Senate in September 2019.
That the government initiate discussions through National Cabinet regarding the development of harmonised political donations laws.
Encouraging diversity in Parliament
Section 44 of the Constitution disqualifies certain classes of people from being eligible for election, including persons who hold any office of profit under the Crown, or those who hold dual citizenship.
This provision compels public servants to resign their employment for the duration of the election campaign, which can have significant professional consequences. This is discriminatory and impedes the democratic right of many Australian citizens to participate in the election process.
The exclusion of dual citizens is equally discriminatory. A significant proportion of Australian citizens were born overseas and are eligible to hold dual citizenship – our parliament would be greatly enriched by their experience.
The Australian Greens support previous recommendations of this Committee that s.44 be amended to ensure that suitable persons are not prevented or discouraged from nominating as candidates.
That the government initiate a referendum to amend section 44 of the Constitution to allow public servants and dual citizens to stand for election to federal parliament.
In the interim, the government introduce legislation to guarantee public servants who stand down from their role to run for election a right to return to work if they are not elected.
Truth in political advertising
Elections are an opportunity for political accountability. Broadcasting false and misleading information during a campaign undermines the capacity for an informed electorate to debate and vote on key policy issues.
Many submissions to this inquiry raised concerns that misleading campaign slogans in the 2019 election were able to influence the outcome of the election, such as the ‘death tax’ and ‘retiree tax’. The Australia Institute report, We Can Handle the Truth, found that 84% of Australians favour legislation to regulate political advertising.
Given the electoral advantage gained by the government from these slogans, it is not surprising that the Committee makes no recommendations on this issue.
The Australia Institute and other submitters proposed models to regulate misleading campaign material, including the approach adopted in South Australia. Both the ACCC and the AEC made clear in submissions and evidence to the Committee that they did not consider themselves the appropriate authority to intervene.
The Greens recognise the difficulty in arbitrating on ‘truth’, balancing robust debate and the implied constitutional freedom of political communication, and the need to ensure that any system is fair and accountable. However, we also recognise that, without some legislative response, the integrity of election campaigns and public faith in political parties will continue to be eroded.
That the government specifically refer to this Committee an inquiry into appropriate legislative responses to truth in political advertising.
The Greens maintain our support for extending the opportunity to vote to minors aged 16 and 17, but not making voting mandatory for any person under 18.
The Australian Greens’ supplementary submission to this inquiry made a number of recommendations regarding scrutineering practices and procedures. We maintain that those recommendations should be considered.
In addition to the recommendations outlined in 1.1 – 1.5 regarding preferential voting, the Greens recommend the following measures to strengthen the voting system and facilitate a more diverse and representative parliament:
Introducing proportional representation in the House of Representatives;
Reducing nomination fees to encourage more people to put their hand up for election; and
Revising the leaders’ debate format to include the Australian Greens, reflecting the role of parties offering a genuine alternative and the prospect of a working minority government.
Senator Larissa Waters