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Originally published in The Mercury on June 1, 2024

Transparency, integrity and accountability were buzzwords of the 2024 state election, yet Tasmanians went to the polls without knowing where their politicians get their money, without laws requiring truth in political advertising, and without an anti-corruption body that is fit for purpose.

With a new power-sharing government in place, now is the time to fortify Tasmania’s democracy to ensure it works for all Tasmanians, not just those in positions of power.

The Australia Institute Tasmania has published a Democracy Agenda for the 51st Parliament, which lays out 16 much-needed reforms to fundamentally improve integrity in Tasmanian politics.

At this year’s upper and lower house elections, parties and candidates were not required to disclose any political donations – however large and whatever the conflict of interest concerns that they might raise. Last year, the Tasmanian Parliament passed limited disclosure laws, but the Government called an early general election without bringing disclosure laws into force. Even when these laws are in place, Tasmanians will pay one of the highest rates of public funding for election campaigns with the poorest oversight of donations received.

Secret political donations let undue influence flourish. Whether that be from foreign-owned multinational salmon companies, the gambling lobby, or elsewhere, Tasmanians should be able to make informed decisions about candidates and political parties they are being asked to vote for.  This means being transparent about the size and origin of funding sources before election day.

Transparency needs to be accompanied by strong accountability, but Tasmania’s Integrity Commission is not fit-for-purpose: it cannot investigate politicians’ conduct during election campaigns, it has a narrow definition of misconduct compared to other states’ corruption watchdogs, it is limited in who it can investigate, investigations take far too long, and it has never held a public hearing. Tasmania needs a real anti-corruption commission with teeth.

The Jacqui Lambie Network agreement to support the minority Rockliff Liberal Government included a review of the Integrity Commission “with an eye to giving it greater capability to conduct its work”. But the Commission underwent an independent review in 2016, which in turn caused a discussion paper on legislative reforms to the Integrity Commission Act 2009 to be released for public consultation by the Department of Justice in 2022.

Eight years after the independent review, only six of the 55 recommendations have been implemented – even though the Tasmanian Government endorsed most of them and committed to implement them. What happened to that commitment and the work of the 2022 review? Its findings have never been released. Another review is wasteful and reeks of delay tactics.

Parliamentarians could immediately begin restoring public confidence by introducing laws for a new, adequately funded, independent anti-corruption commission with appropriate powers to investigate corruption, in line with other jurisdictions’ arrangements.

Introducing truth in political advertising laws should be another top priority for this Parliament. Political ads that are deceptive and misleading interfere with the public’s ability to make informed decisions, but lying in political advertising remains perfectly legal in Tasmania. With the rise of social media and generative AI, democracies around the world are struggling to address disinformation and misinformation. Truth in political advertising laws are a possible, practical and popular measure that can combat these emerging problems.

Tasmania lags behind other Australian jurisdictions when it comes to these key integrity measures that protect against corruption, ensure trust in Tasmania’s public institutions, and support good governance. The Democracy Agenda for the 51st Parliament lays out how it can be done, but we need Tasmania’s elected representatives to step up and bring Tasmania’s integrity laws in line with community expectations.

Minority governments in Australia have a long and strong history of successful parliamentary and democratic reform, and Tasmania is no exception. The majority of the current Members of Parliament committed to strengthening integrity in politics during their election campaigns. The ‘coalition of chaos’ that was threatened during the state election now presents a golden opportunity for real democratic reform that addresses the integrity, transparency and accountability issues in Tasmanian politics.

Many of the ideas put forward in the Democracy Agenda were raised at a public forum on political integrity and refined during roundtable discussions that the Australia Institute hosted during the election period. These reforms are by Tasmanians, for Tasmanians.

Fortifying Tasmania’s democracy is the responsibility of all Parliamentarians. But unless they are prepared to support integrity reforms that are consistent with the expectations of their constituents, Tasmania will continue to lack the key accountability and transparency mechanisms that ensure good governance.

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