Real-time disclosures should replace yearly political donation data dump

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The Australia Institute is calling for real-time disclosures of political donations ahead of the Australian Electoral Commission’s annual release of political contributions data for 2022–23.

Flaws in the current system mean that some donations take over 18 months to be disclosed – if they are disclosed at all.

The high threshold before a donation must be disclosed, coupled with the mass release of information in a yearly data dump, makes it incredibly difficult for voters, journalists and community organisations to hold politicians and political parties to account for the donations they accept.

A newly published review of the Albanese Government and the 47th Parliament’s progress on the Institute’s Democracy Agenda released ahead of parliament’s return for 2024, emphasises the need for action on political contributions – the last opportunity to do so ahead of the 2025 federal election.

Gaps in Australian political contribution laws

Only political contributions above $15,000 are required to be disclosed, and contributions can be split to stay below the threshold.

Disclosures are once a year, for the financial year prior – meaning some political contributions are not disclosed for over 18 months.

The vague “other receipts” category includes corporate membership fees, affiliation fees, levies on MPs and staffers, dividends, rent and other payments.

Democratic reform proposals

  • Lower the donation disclosure threshold.
  • Introduce real-time donation disclosure requirements for political parties and candidates;
  • Consider amending the definition of “gift” to ensure it meets community expectations of transparency in political donations.
  • Make ministerial diaries public so the connection, if one exists, between political contributions and political access is revealed.
  • Along with political contribution reform, the review outlines ambitious but achievable electoral reforms, including to:
    • Legislate truth in political advertising laws;
    • Increase funding for the ABC and SBS;
    • Further cut contracts with external suppliers and consulting firms;
    • Publish consultants’ reports paid for with public money.

“Today’s mass release of political donations data highlights the lack of transparency and integrity in Australian politics,” said Bill Browne, Director of the Australia Institute’s Democracy & Accountability Program.

“We are learning today whether businesses made political donations 18 months ago. These lags and other loopholes make it difficult to see how politicians and political parties are being funded – and by whom.

“With Parliament resuming next week, this is a wake-up call that 2024 is the last chance for meaningful democratic reform ahead of the 2025 election.

“During the first term of the Albanese Government, we’ve seen welcome reforms – including a National Anti-Corruption Commission and a code of conduct for parliamentarians.

“Other reforms have been progressed or implemented in part, including making some improvements to whistleblower laws and securing a five-year funding cycle for the ABC.

“The Albanese Government has shown itself willing to listen to and work with the parliament to deliver democratic reforms. It must not squander the opportunity to continue this work.

“Political upheaval in other democracies and the misleading and vitriolic claims that swamped the Voice referendum demonstrate that Australia needs strong, democratic institutions.

“Australians should go to the next election with strict political donation disclosure laws, truth in political advertising laws in force and information about who’s meeting ministers made public as a matter of course.”

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