Additional comments by the Australian Greens

Additional comments by the Australian Greens

1.1For many years, the Greens have championed reforms to clean up our democracy, including getting big money out of politics, exposing hidden money that is never declared, preventing misleading campaigns, removing barriers to running for election, and addressing the ‘incumbency advantages’ that stack outcomes in favour of the two-party system.

1.2Any legislation to deliver electoral reforms must ensure it strengthens democracy, not just the political fortunes of the big parties. History has shown reforms, or lack thereof, that bolster the re-election chances of the big parties at the expense of smaller parties or new entrants. The Greens cannot support such an approach.

1.3Critically, campaign finance reforms must be delivered as a whole, not piecemeal. The Greens will not accept partial reforms that leave loopholes and backdoors for hidden and dirty money to continue and further entrench major party advantages over third parties and independents

1.41 in 3 voters chose to vote for someone other than a major party at the last election. They deserve to see their vote result in representation in our Parliament and this will be our measuring stick for what makes a good reform.

1.5Confidence in democracy has declined dramatically around the world over the past decade. While Australia’s democratic processes remain robust, we can see worrying trends where big money has impacted the outcome. We need to act quickly to reverse the race to the bottom and deliver the integrity, choice, and representation that the community is demanding.

1.6The majority recommendations of this interim report reflect the broad appetite for reform and the compelling evidence from witnesses to the inquiry about what is needed, but the test will be whether a full package of reforms is ultimately brought forward, or just cherry-picked reforms aimed at propping up two major parties whose votes continue to decline. We will continue to push the government to implement recommendations that improve democracy before the next election.

1.7These brief additional comments highlight issues to be addressed in implementing the recommendations, and further matters to be considered by the Committee before the inquiry is finalised.

Campaign finance


1.8The community is sick of political parties acting in the interests of their donors, not the public interest. They make the link between fossil fuel donations and subsidies to open coal and gas projects in a climate crisis. They see donations from the financial and gambling sectors put a handbrake on regulation of those sectors. And they’ve watched as donations from consultants are rewarded with millions in contracts at the expense of the public service.

1.9We therefore welcome the Committee recommendations to lower the disclosure threshold for donations, introduce real time disclosure, cap donations and review the definition of ‘gift’. These are important measures to close loopholes that have led to millions in hidden money being gifted to political parties each year. They will give people a clearer understanding of who is influencing the decisions of the candidates they are voting for. They will also help to level the playing field and avoid those with money gaining greater access to government. Any legislative reform in this area needs to have all forms of income to political parties captured before it would be acceptable to the Greens.

1.10In addition to supporting caps on donations, the Greens maintain our long-term call to go further and ban donations from industries with a track record of seeking political influence (fossil fuels, banking, pharmaceutical, defence, alcohol, tobacco, gambling and property development). We also continue to support stronger regulation of lobbyists, closing the revolving door of post-parliamentary jobs for mates, strengthening the Register of Interests, and requiring publication of Ministerial diaries.

1.11Critically, the benefits of donations caps and lowering the disclosure threshold will be undermined if donors can continue to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars as “subscription fees”, “memberships” of party-affiliated business forums and expensive dinners and not report that as a donation.

1.12PwC’s $82,500 subscription fee to the Labor Business Forum was not recorded as a donation, but in exchange the consultants got extraordinary access to, and influence over, government - with devastating consequences for the public good.

1.13Donors can currently spend thousands on a dinner with a politician, and not treat it as a donation if they believe that they got “value for money” from attending. Sportsbet spent $8960 on a dinner with the then Shadow Minister responsible for regulating gambling. Time will tell whether they consider they got value for money.

1.14And funding vehicles like Kooyong 200 or the Sydney Mining Club continue to obscure transparency by allowing donations to be funneled through their accounts to avoid disclosure of the original donor.

1.15Clearly, the current rules are farcical and we’re pleased to see some commitment to closing the most egregious of loopholes. However, the proposal to provide “appropriate” exclusions for subscriptions, membership and affiliation fees is worrying and must not be used as a way to maintain the disclosure gaps.

1.16Election campaigns, particularly those of new candidates and minor parties, regularly rely on volunteer labour from dedicated individuals, compared with professional staff engaged by incumbents. The value of this volunteer labour should be excluded from donation caps, provided it is done in an individual capacity, not an ‘in-kind’ corporate donation.

1.17Beyond reasonable party membership fees and individual volunteering, all other contributions should be disclosed. For the Greens, partial reform in this area will only facilitate more of the same influence of politics that the Government is proposing to end and will not be accepted.

1.18The majority report recommends that donation and spending caps apply to third parties. We note the concerns raised by charities and not for profits that, while targeted spending caps are appropriate, capping donations to third parties would disproportionately impact their work and effectively silence their advocacy around elections. Third party witnesses are yet to appear before this inquiry, and we urge the Committee to further consider that recommendation following their evidence and ensure that caps do not limit the voices in political debate.

Spending caps

1.19A healthy democracy is not one in which those with the deepest pockets get to be the loudest voices. Without reforms, we risk our electoral system becoming even more skewed towards the wealthy and entrenching the two-party system.

1.20The Greens support Committee recommendations to cap election spending and increase public funding so candidates don’t need to beg for campaign funds from those who could later expect their generosity to be rewarded. The changes are also needed to stop candidates pouring millions into campaigns that flood the public space and drown out their opponents.

1.21However, as with political donations, the risk with spending caps is that reforms lock in advantages to the major parties and exclude others by including some types of activities and excluding others.

1.22In addition to the features outlined in the majority report, spending caps should be designed to:

  • capture expenditure on advertising, campaign materials, polling and research, and in kind gifts; and exclude salaries and office rental costs to address the imbalance where incumbents have these costs paid with public funds.

A mechanism should be developed to split the cost of national or statewide advertising costs between all electorates for the purposes of spending caps, to prevent major parties using national campaigns to exceed caps in targeted and marginal electorates.

  • include anti-avoidance provisions that would prevent parties circumventing caps by using third party conduits or entering contracts outside the spending cap period
  • include strong monitoring and enforcement provisions, and mechanisms to recover amounts spent in excess of the spending cap
  • provide for regular, independent review of the cap limit following each election.

Incumbency advantages

1.23The majority report recognises that there are a number of inherent advantages enjoyed by incumbent candidates and those backed by large parties, including access to party resources, government advertising budgets and grants programs, corporate donors, administrative officers, and media profile.

1.24Spending caps will go some way to leveling the playing field for independent and small party candidates, but must be complemented by other reforms to remove the incumbency advantages. Unless those issues are addressed, spending caps could disproportionately impact on new entrants.

1.25In addition to designing spending caps to account for the incumbency advantage, reforms are needed to ensure these advantages are not weaponised to entrench the major parties. In particular, we recommend that the Committee in its final report consider ways to:

  • strengthen the regulatory rules for government advertising and use of electorate office resources
  • prevent pork-barrelling, including by ensuring the independence and rigour of grant allocations, continuing to resource the Australian National Audit Office to undertake performance audits of all grant programs, and empowering the National Anti-Corruption Commission to investigate allegations of pork-barrelling
  • increase access to public funding reimbursements for new candidates

First Nations engagement

1.26This Committee has previously recommended that the government strengthen enrolment and engagement in elections, particularly for First Nations voters. A robust democracy ensures that all voters are given the opportunity to exercise their vote and have the information they need to make an informed choice.

1.27Measures to increase enrolment and participation include on the day enrolment, phone voting, extending remote polling, removing restrictions on voting rights for prisoners and Australians living overseas, increased use of interpreters, and producing electoral materials in language.

1.28We were disappointed to see many of those measures rejected or ignored by the government in its Referendum (Machinery Provisions) Amendment Act 2023. We strongly support the Committee’s reiteration of the need for action and urge the government to make those changes before the Voice referendum, and any future federal election.

Other issues

1.29Politics cannot work for communities if it isn’t genuinely listening to their voices. There is a strong public sentiment that diverse voices are not being heard in parliament, that politicians do not look like, or share the experiences of, the communities they represent.

1.30While the 2022 election saw some progress on this, the Greens urge the Committee to consider other ways to remove barriers to achieving a more diverse and representative parliament, including:

  • removing Constitutional restrictions that disqualify dual citizens and public servants from becoming a member of parliament
  • introducing proportional representation in the House of Representatives so that elected members more closely reflect the Australian population and the voting intentions of the public
  • reducing candidate nomination fees
  • ensuring the leaders’ debate and media election programs include the Australian Greens and other smaller parties offering genuine alternatives to the major parties.
    1. Thank you to all the submitters who have engaged with this inquiry to date. After years of pushing for donations and spending reforms, we are delighted to see the weight of public pressure force a commitment to progress. We will work to ensure that those reforms strengthen our democracy for everyone, not just the major parties and will stand firm against proposals that sound good in principle but, in practice, further entrench the two party system.

Senator Larissa Waters

Greens Senator for Queensland

Committee Secretariat contact:

Committee Secretary
Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
PO Box 6021
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Phone: +61 2 6277 2374