Talking Point: We’ll never know who funded ‘Love your local’

This opinion piece by Institute for the Study of Social Change Director Professor Richard Eccelston, first appeared in the Mercury newspaper on Saturday 2 February 2019.

GOUGH Whitlam once said that a week was a long time in politics.

But Tasmanians have had to wait a full 11 months for the Australian Election Commission to publish political donations and other sources of income received by political parties during the 2017-18 financial year.

The official data on last year’s political donations is of particular interest here in Tasmania given claims that Liberal’s landslide victory last March was bankrolled by an unprecedented multimillion-dollar advertising campaign funded by the gaming industry.

So, after almost a year of speculation, what has been revealed about the role of corporate and other donations in the 2018 Tasmanian election?

The problem with the AEC data is that it only gives a very partial account of political donations and spending in relation to the last state election.

Despite all of the speculation, according to the AEC data at least, total spending by political parties in 2018 was very similar to our last election year in 2014. In fact, the Tasmanian Liberal Party spent $700,000 less in 2018 ($4.1 million in total) than in 2014, although these figures included all types of spending as there is no separate reporting of campaign spending.

What the AEC data does confirm is that Liberals were able to outspend Labor by a ratio of more than four to one. But again, this is only part of the story because the data doesn’t include spending by unions and by individual candidates.

In terms of specific donations, the Tasmanian Liberals received $936,000 in corporate donations in 2017-18 including $269,500 from the Australian Hotels Association — well up from their $30,000 donation to the Liberals in 2014. Interestingly the Federal Group donated $50,000 to the 2018 Liberal campaign whereas back in 2014 they hedged their bets by contributing $25,000 to the ALP and $20,000 to the Liberal party.

These are large donations by Tasmanian standards but there’s no evidence of a smoking gun in the form of multimillion-dollar contributions or unprecedented spending by political parties.

A more serious problem with the AEC data released yesterday is that it doesn’t capture campaign spending by third-party lobby groups designed to influence voters during state elections so we’ll never know who funded the “Love your local” campaign and how much its saturation advertising over the summer of 2018 actually cost.

What does this mean? Can Tasmanian voters rest assured that large businesses, unions and other interest groups don’t exert undue influence over Tasmanian politics?

The reality is that federal disclosure laws are extremely weak and only provide a limited and very belated summary of the money spent on political campaigning in state or federal elections.

Fortunately the tide is turning and there is now a broad consensus that we need greater transparency around political donations and campaign spending.

All other Australian states have now introduced comprehensive reforms to improve transparency in relation to political donations and spending.

The recent Mercury newspaper poll found that more than 90 per cent of readers want the Tasmanian Government to follow suit.

To its credit, these issues are front and centre of the Government’s current review of the Tasmanian Electoral Act.

The challenge now is to ensure that effective state-level disclosure laws are in place well before the next state election.

At a minimum, these reforms must focus on improving transparency in relation to campaign finance to ensure that Tasmanians know who is funding political parties and lobby groups before they next vote.

In our submission to the Tasmanian Government we have suggested following the lead of other states by reducing the disclosure threshold for donors to $1000 with political parties reporting and publishing donations on a weekly basis during campaign periods.

There are associated and complex debates about whether there should be caps on political donations and spending which need to be carefully debated and considered as part of the review process.

Another issue is whether political parties should receive public campaign funding to reduce the influence of private donors.

While established parties love these handouts there is little evidence that they diminish the demand for private donations.

The bottom line is that we will never know the extent of corporate influence in the 2018 Tasmanian election and this itself is a major problem.

Transparency and accountability remain the key pillars for successful and sustainable democracies. While Tasmania has a dynamic and generally healthy political culture we can’t be complacent.

Given that trust in government is falling around the world, it is more important than ever to promote simple reforms that will boost the public’s confidence in election results and ensure that policy decisions are being made for all citizens and not just those with deep pockets

Professor Richard Eccleston is Director of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania and has written widely on business influence and lobbying.

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