Electoral Funding Bill 2018

Electoral Funding Bill 2018

(Debate on Bill, Wednesday 23 May 2018, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

The aim of any electoral funding reform should be to enable a fair and transparent system that: discourages donations in exchange for political influence; prevents rorting; does not place an unnecessary burden on the public purse; and ensures anyone, regardless of wealth or party affiliation can run for office.

Over the last decade, a significant number of changes have been introduced to make election funding more transparent and reduce opportunities for corruption. We now have one of the best systems in the country.

The Electoral Funding Bill rewrites funding laws and I am concerned that some changes are unworkable, anti-democratic and unfair. Important legislation that directly affects democracy should involve wide consultation with stakeholders and then stay on the parliamentary table more than six days so that members can assess details and consult with their communities.

My concerns relate to local government election changes. Appallingly the government hasn’t even consulted with the Local Government Association and the result is a bill that fails to recognise any nuance in local government elections or differences in divisions and candidate groupings. I am concerned that local government elections will be less fair as a result of this bill.

Expenditure caps for local government elections will be: for councils with 200,000 or fewer electors: $30,000 for parties and $35,000 for independent groups of candidates; and for larger councils: $40,000 for parties and $45,000 for independent groups of candidates. This is around a quarter of what state candidates can spend, when state divisions are much smaller.

This small cap makes having a campaign office impossible. During local government election time, the major parties may be able to run a central office for all divisions, but groups that only run in a particular division will not be able to, particularly in divisions with high rents like the inner city. The small cap also benefits the incumbent, who can use corflutes, tee shirts and badges from previous elections to reduce expenditure.

Distinguishing between council areas based on whether they have more or less than 200,000 electors is crude and fails to acknowledge the wide variation in council sizes. We now have supercouncils nearing closer to a million – candidates running for these councils will only have around $10,000 more than the smallest councils of a few tens of thousand.

It is unclear how mayoral candidate caps will apply where mayors are popularly elected. The way the legislation is drafted appears to assume that mayoral campaigns run separately to council campaigns, when the reality is that one campaign will cover both. Mayoral candidates are generally required to also run on the council ballot box, as is done in the City of Sydney election. It is unclear how candidates will be required to separate the disclosure campaign expenditure and there is a risk that compliance will be impossible.

While I support caps in local government elections, they must be fair and workable and the government’s failure to consult with local government means the bill does not achieve these outcomes. Further work is needed before I can support this bill and I foreshadow that I will move to postpone consideration of this bill.

There are some good provisions in the bill, such as new requirements to disclose donations within two weeks during the six months before an election. Most donations are made in the final period before an election and it is important that the community is given as much information about donations to a candidate before an election.

I am concerned that the existing need to aggregate multiple small anonymous donations made at fundraisers to determine if they are from the same donor is being removed. I understand that it was a recommendation of the Schott panel but raffle tickets are a common way to raise funds and tickets could be set at $50 each or $50 for a bundle on purpose to allow big donors to buy a large number and escape disclosure. I don’t believe recording these donations is onerous and I support retaining the provision.

I again state that disclosure thresholds should be reduced. Currently only donations over $1,000 in a financial year period must be disclosed and this means the vast majority go unreported. The cap allows a candidate to receive $8,000 and a party to receive $20,000 from one donor in a four year electoral cycle without disclosure. Such large amounts could be seen to create a sense of debt between the donor and a candidate or party and disclosure of these are in the in the public interest.

Most community-based donations are small – donations to my campaign rarely exceed $200. Sources of campaign funding are in the public interest and disclosure thresholds should be reduced to $200 per year.

I have listened to the contribution of opposition speakers and their concerns about how cuts to third party caps will affect union campaigns and the ability for workers to have a voice in elections. I believe providing more time to consider the details of these provisions will help determine the real impacts of these changes.

I move that the motion be amended by leaving out the word "now" and adding the words "this day one month hence" after "second time".

See the continuation of debate HERE

In Response to Amendments: 

This bill makes far reaching changes to council elections but there has been no consultation with the local government sector and members have not been given the time to do their own comprehensive assessments or consultation.

As I said during my contribution on the bill, the caps set for local government expenditure appear too low to support workable campaigns, especially for larger councils, including the City of Sydney in my electorate which has both resident and business voters. 

The caps seem to significantly restrict normal campaign activities. They seem to favour incumbents who can re-use campaign paraphernalia.

The caps seem unfair when compared against expenditure caps in state electoral divisions or when they are compared for different sized councils, which range from tens of thousands to near a million.

I also talked about the lack of clarity around how expenditure caps are separated when candidates run both on the mayor ticket and on the council ticket. The sections on caps are unintelligible. I am concerned that compliance could be impossible.

The changes to local government elections have been poorly thought-through indeed it is unclear how the government came up with the caps. They could be anti-democratic.

More work is needed and a new bill should be introduced after engaging with the local government sector, councils and candidates to establish caps that are fair and enable anyone to run in local government elections, regardless of party or group affiliation or the size of the local government division. 

I commend the amendment.

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