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Strengthened donations laws and Right to Information provisions, as well as a Tasmanian Integrity Commission with teeth and new truth in political advertising laws are needed to ensure good government in Tasmania.
Compared to other Australian states, Tasmania has weaker political donation laws, less government transparency and limited public accountability.
Most other Australian states restructured their accountability mechanisms following a public corruption scandal. Tasmania has endured comparable scandals, but the response has been less robust.
The one good thing about being at the back of the pack is the opportunity to choose the best of the rest, leapfrogging the field. Tasmania can emerge as a national leader in good government if the political will exists.
Some areas of governance reform have never been attempted, while others were last attempted – unsuccessfully – over a decade ago.
In 2009, following increasing pressure for government transparency, the then Bartlett Labor government introduced a number of reforms including the creation of the Tasmanian Integrity Commission (TIC) and a Right to Information (RTI) framework.
In the following decade, the TIC has never held an inquiry using all of its investigative powers, meaning that it has made no misconduct findings or held any public hearings. The Australia Institute was unable to find any evidence of cases being referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). The jurisdiction of the TIC is also more limited than the analogous integrity commissions of some other states: it cannot investigate persons who are not public servants or members of parliament.
The Right to Information Act came into force in 2010 in order to increase accountability of the executive to the people of Tasmania. A decade on, as at 1 July this year, the office of the Ombudsman was investigating 82 RTI cases, which had been “open” for an average of 418 days. Tasmania is an underperformer in ensuring RTIs are processed in a timely manner, and has a higher than average instance of redactions and rejections in comparison to other states.
Tasmania does not have state-level political donation laws. Only federal laws apply, meaning that there is no obligation to report donations below $13,500 nor an obligation to report direct donations to political candidates at all. Unlike some other states, there are no bans on donations from particular industries such as property developers or the gaming industry, no ban on foreign donations and no caps on election expenditure.
Tasmania does outlaw the use of another candidate’s image and name during an election period. However, it is still perfectly legal for candidates and parties to lie in political advertising. The Australian Capital Territory recently followed South Australia in passing truth in political advertising laws in 2020.
Rather than implement piecemeal legislation as scandals unfold, Tasmania could preemptively implement reforms in these four areas of governance that would collectively make Tasmania Australia’s most accountable state government. This would both strengthen democracy in Tasmania and help restore trust in government and politics.
This report recommends that the Government undertake significant rather than piecemeal reform in 2021 to ensure the people of Tasmania have confidence in their democracy and their elected officials.