This, however, does not excuse non-compliance. Independents should be setting an example as they work to hold the major parties to account. With their policy agenda trumpeting integrity and accountability, including Zali Steggall’s support of an integrity commission and truth in political advertising legislation, Independents should make their own funding and conduct transparent.
But more importantly, we need to reform our system to make sure that no MP, Independent or major party, can hide the source of their funding. Our current rules allowed Clive Palmer to spend $80 million on an election campaign. It also allowed $68 million in donations from unknown sources last financial year. We need to wipe the slate clean and build a democratic system of political finance.
Starting with disclosure of donations. All donations over $1000 should be disclosed in real time, not 18 months later. Donations to separate branches should be aggregated. And the definition of donation should be expanded to include any gift that is spent on electoral matter, including income from party fundraising events and corporate sponsorships.
Electoral expenditure should be capped. Clive Palmer should not be allowed to outspend anyone else just because he is a billionaire. We need to stop the political fundraising arms race that leads the major parties prioritising donor relationships over constituents in their electorates.
And we need to cap donations. Our research shows that a small group of millionaire donors are funding over a fifth of major party income. This is undemocratic. Party members and the public cannot compete with the big money currently dominating politics. Donation caps would mean that my donation means as much as yours, which means as much as Anthony Pratt’s, currently the Liberal’s largest donor.
All of this needs to be enforced if it is going to be effective. The AEC did a good job picking up this incorrect disclosure from Steggall, but an Audit Office report in 2020 found that the AEC is only “partially effective” in monitoring compliance. The ANAO reported that the AEC does not use all available data sets or enforcement powers, and that there is no assurance that disclosures are accurate or complete. The AEC needs more resources and powers to enforce donations rules, and we need an independent integrity commission to investigate serious breaches.
Big money in politics can buy access and influence. It can shape policies and win or lose elections. We need urgent reform to stop the flows of cash currently flooding our democracy.
Han Aulby is executive director at the Centre for Public Integrity.