While most would agree that only Australians should have the power to influence our election outcomes, our nation is one of the few western democracies where foreign money can still be used to influence domestic elections.
In December 2017, the Turnbull Government introduced the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 to ban foreign political donations. This was in response to the Committee’s second interim report on the inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 federal election: Foreign Donations.
Despite broad consensus on the principle of banning foreign donations, there has been significant, and important, public debate as to who and what activities the ban should be applied to.
At the heart of this debate lies the fact that election campaigning today is very different from that in the mid-1980s when relevant provisions in the Electoral Act were written. The campaign period has moved well beyond the time in-between the issuing and return of the election writs. Today, campaigning is continuous and largely issues-based. Campaign messaging is also communicated via a wider range of mediums by a much wider range of entities, including charities, industry groups and religious institutions.
The committee agrees in-principal to the passage of this Bill, subject to the government addressing the report’s 15 recommendations. These recommendations provide greater clarity for charities and align definitions as closely as possible with the intent and principles of the Bill, while ensuring regulatory and compliance burdens are minimised.
Australian citizens must have visibility of who is seeking to influence their votes and have confidence that foreigners are not seeking to influence the outcome of their votes. Therefore, Australia’s electoral laws must apply equally to all participating in the political process with the aim of influencing electors voting intentions. The committee therefore recommends introduction of a new and easily accessible transparency register to provide voters with the ability to readily identify who is seeking to influence their vote. A transparency register would also assist all third parties, particularly those not compliant with current legislative requirements, to better understand and comply with regulatory obligations.
All JSCEM committee members are deeply committed to ensuring the health of Australia’s democratic institutions. While Australians may not like the outcome of an election, they must have confidence that the result accurately reflects the will of the majority of Australian voters.
Deliberations on this multi-partisan report were underpinned by the principles of national sovereignty, voter transparency and the preservation of democratic freedoms.