Has electoral funding reform been dropped by Labor and Coalition?

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Blog post by Senator Lee Rhiannon

I only made it to one day of the Challenges of Electoral Democracy Workshop held in Melbourne in July. Organised by Melbourne Law School Associate Professor Joo-Cheong Tham, the forum brought together academics, politicians, a few journalists and community group representatives.

With the need for nationwide uniform laws on electoral funding hotting up this forum was very timely. It was also useful for me as I am now a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters which is currently inquiring into the funding of political parties and election campaigns.

A particularly informative session was on “Challenges of Enforcement and Compliance” addressed by NSW Labor General Secretary Sam Dasytari and NSW Deputy Director of the Liberal Party Richard Shields.

While the two party leaders were short on detail in their contributions their comments left me with the impression that Labor and the Coalition parties have put national electoral funding reform on the back burner.

Mr Dasytari emphasised that such reforms were four to five years away and that they could not proceed until all states and territories were in agreement.  These comments were reminiscent of the tactics employed by former NSW premiers Bob Carr and Morris Iemma.

When the Greens started lobbying for political donations reform in the early 2000s Mr Carr dismissed our call to ban donations out of hand. The heat of community anger pushed him to change his tactics and his regular refrain was that reform was needed but could not happen until all state governments were in agreement.

The heat of the Wollongong scandal became so intense that Mr Iemma dropped this tactic and committed NSW to going it alone on electoral funding reform.

But now it appears that under Mr Dasytari’s leadership the brakes are back on the reform process.

NSW Liberals also have dropped their commitment to clean up political donations. Mr Shields reiterated the NSW Coalition government’s decision to have yet another inquiry into electoral funding. At least the Liberal Party leader acknowledged that forum participants would “roll their eyes” on hearing this latest manoeuvre.

Early in July the Daily Telegraph noted that “the government has failed on its promise to enact political donations laws in its first 100 days - amid suspicions that Liberal head office wants as much time as possible to raise money before donations are banned, except for individuals.”

So where does this lead the federal parliament’s inquiry? I’m hoping that there will be some excellent witnesses who set out a strong case for reform.