Principles for fair political finance reform

by Bill Browne

Constructive and non-partisan political finance reform could improve trust in politics and reduce the influence of vested interests.

But if political finance reform is done poorly, it could make Australian elections less fair, and conceal rather than expose the undue influence moneyed interests enjoy over our politicians and parties.

The Australia Institute has long been interested in restoring integrity to politics. We have identified the following key principles for political finance reform. If these principles are not abided by, any political finance reform risks exacerbating the problems it aims to fix.

Nine principles for political finance reform:

All candidates and contributors should be treated fairly. Five principles that advance this pillar are that political finance reform should:

1.      Give voters a range of choices about who represents them

2.      Not make it harder for new candidates to compete with incumbents

3.      Provide a level playing field regardless of whether candidates are members of a political party or independents

4.      Factor in the significant taxpayer-funded advantages of incumbency, with an eye to reducing disadvantages already faced by challengers

5.      Account for spill over effects and economies of scale.

Political finance reforms should be targeted and effective. Four principles that advance this pillar are that political finance reform should:

6.      Focus on those who most clearly threaten democracy and accountability

7.      Ensure that public funding is fit for purpose

8.      Strive for fairness and increased transparency

9.      Distinguish between bona fide contributions and “cash for access”.

The Australia Institute highlighted five of these principles in a July 2023 open letter from civil society groups saying that political finance reform is overdue but warning that, if done poorly, it could make elections less fair and parliaments less representative.