Image for Will voters find out who is funding Tasmanian local government election campaigns?

When Tasmanians vote in the October local government elections they will have no way of knowing who is funding the election campaigns of the candidates due to the state’s outdated local government regulations.

Nor will voters ever find out, as Tasmania is the only state in Australia that has no requirement for local government candidates to disclose who funded their campaign.

In October 263 councillor positions will be vacant across Tasmania’s 29 councils. Electors will also be voting for the influential positions of Mayor and Deputy Mayor in each of the councils.

While regulations under Tasmania’s local government act limit political advertising to $5,000 for candidates for a councillor position or $8000 for those contesting elections both as councillor and Deputy Mayor or Lord Mayor, there are two large loopholes.

The first is that the advertising spending limit this year only applies for expenditure incurred between August 14 and October 28. Before then the sky is the limit.

The second loophole is that there are no restrictions on who donations can be accepted from and the identity of donors remains a secret no matter how much they contributed.

The only disclosure requirement for candidates is that within 45 days of the declaration of the poll results they must submit a statement detailing what campaign advertising they paid for.  (See page 14 in the Tasmanian Electoral Commission’s Candidate Booklet.)

The effect of the two loopholes is potentially significant. Under current Tasmanian law it would be perfectly legal for a candidate to raise $100,000 for an election campaign fund and launch a $95,000 advertising blitz ending on August 13 and then spend another $5000 during the regulated August 14 to October 28 period.  A high profile advertising campaign in the month before spending limits kick in could ensure a well-funded candidate builds a commanding public profile rival candidates can never effectively compete with.

While many candidates fund their campaigns out of their own pockets, bigger budget campaigns require larger donations. However, even if all of the money for the winning candidates came from developers who were pursuing development applications for controversial projects, none would have to be disclosed.

Scandals everywhere

Over the past twenty years public disclosure of political donations to council candidates has become a central element in ensuring the credibility of local government elections and preventing corruption.

In a 2001 report – Corruption Resistance Strategies – Researching risks in local government - the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) noted that “we consistently receive more complaints about local government than any other area within the NSW public sector.”

Based on a survey of council general managers, ICAC reported that one quarter of general managers surveyed “saw bribery as a major corruption risk in the area of development” and that one in nine council staff “said they were aware of instances of bribery, particularly during the development approval process.”

One of the factors increasing the risk of corruption in local government, the report noted, was that councils “have a lot of discretionary powers within their decision-making processes.”

A September 2013 Victorian Government review of local government electoral standards noted that in 2012 only one in eight candidates received a donation over the $500 threshold but pointed out that most disclosable donations were to candidates in inner urban areas. Of the $1.19 million donated in disclosable donations to candidates across the state, more than half were to big-budget campaigns for the City of Melbourne. (See page 36)

In the past decade controversies over the influence of donors to local government candidates have been all too common. In New South Wales an inquiry into the 2004 Tweed Shire Council election described a majority of councillors elected as “puppets” of a developer lobby group, Tweed Directions. The Minister for Local Government, Tony Kelly, sacked the council and administrators were appointed.

In Queensland a Crime and Misconduct Commission inquiry into the Gold Coast City Council election of 2004 found that “secrecy, deceit and misinformation” during the campaign by a developer backed candidates had “corrupted the electoral process.”

A few years later the Wollongong City Council was sacked after an Independent Commission Against Corruption recommended a raft of charges against Council officers over a $100 million development proposal. ICAC also found that three former councillors had “engaged in corrupt conduct by soliciting a political donation … in the order of $20,000 in return for supporting” a development proposal of the donor and that they had completed “false or misleading pecuniary interest returns.” 

Ahead of the 2012 Melbourne City Council election, The Age raised questions about who was funding the campaigns of candidates, with the big-budget campaign of Lord Mayoral candidate Robert Doyle becoming the focus of a series of stories. While Doyle’s bid to be elected Mayor was ultimately successful, the media attention led to debate about the need to ensure disclosure of donors before votes were cast. After the votes were counted, Doyle and others disclosed their donors.

However, the controversy persisted and the perils of developer donations was highlighted when the Council could not make a planning decision because members of ‘Team Doyle’ and one other Councillor declared a conflict of interest over donations from the project proponent.

The sun doesn’t shine in Tasmania

Tasmania is alone amongst other states in not requiring disclosure of donations to local government candidates. (In the Northern Territory political donations are also unregulated while the Australian Capital Territory has no local government.)

In Queensland local government candidates are required to disclose the total amount of funding plus details of all individuals who contributed more than $200 while in South Australia the threshold is set at $500.

In New South Wales local government candidates have to declare all donations over $1000. In addition the Electoral Funding Authority states that donations are banned from accepting donations from “property developers, tobacco and alcohol and gambling business entities”.

In New South Wales the disclosure requires also extend to those seeking planning approval from council. According to the Independent Commission Against Corruption:

“any person who makes a relevant planning application or submission to a council is required to disclose all donations of $1000 or more made in the last two years to any councillors. Similarly, gifts made to any councillor or employee of a council in the same period are also required to be disclosed. Councils are required to make disclosures of reportable political donations or gifts available to the public.”

In Victoria all donations in cash or in kind over $500 have to be disclosed (see page 33) while in Western Australia “local government candidates and donors have a duty of disclosure for electoral donations” over $2000.

In early 2012 the then Labor Attorney General Brian Wightman initiated a review of Tasmania’s electoral disclosure laws. However, the focus of the discussion paper he released was solely on the two houses of parliament and not local government. The Tasmanian Branch of the Liberal Party argued in their submission to the review against any changes to electoral law. While not specifically mentioning local government elections, they argued that changes to donation, spending and disclosure laws claiming would “inevitably lead to increased litigation - a very unhealthy development for our democracy.” The submission did not elaborate on why disclosure would result in increased litigation.

When the lack of local government disclosure of donations was raised earlier this year, Tasmania’s Attorney General, Vanessa Goodwin, signalled that she had no intention of initiating any changes. Requiring disclosure of donations to local government candidates, she told The Mercury, “is not something we are considering at this point in time.”

For a detailed comparative assessment of Australian states’ donor disclosure and other key electoral integrity standards see: The regulation of political donations and gifts in Queensland: a comparative analysis, Crime and Misconduct Commission, December 2012. (Pdf)

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