Misha Ketchell writes:

It’s a question that goes to the core of transparency in our democratic system. Is a candidate who agrees to direct preferences to a political party in exchange for financial backing obliged to disclose the relationship to voters? Does the law stop political parties duping voters by funding dummy “independent” candidates?

The question is now being examined by the Australian Electoral Commission after John Pasquarelli revealed Liberal party officials paid for him to run as an “independent” in Bendigo in the 2001 federal election in exchange for his preferences. The deal was revealed after Pasquarelli was last Friday refused membership of the Victorian Liberal Party on the grounds he had broken a party rule by running against a Liberal candidate in Bendigo in 2001. TheHeraldSun reported:

Outspoken political figure John Pasquarelli has been blackballed by the state Liberal Party.

The unprecedented rebuff, made at an explosive meeting at party headquarters, was based on Mr Pasquarelli running as an independent against the Liberal candidate for the seat of Bendigo in the 2001 federal election. But he has now revealed it was senior Liberal Party officials who paid him to run as an independent so he would direct preferences back to the Liberals.

Pasquarelli, a former adviser to Pauline Hanson, told Crikey yesterday he had struck the deal with two party officials who paid his nomination fee and the cost of printing his posters and how-to-vote cards. We referred the article and Pasquarelli’s claims to the AEC, who this morning confirmed they were looking into the matter. Pasquarelli has so far refused to name the two officials involved.

An AEC spokesman said the disclosure and bribery rules for candidates are outlined the AEC candidates handbook. In a section on bribery it quotes the Commonwealth Electoral Act:

326(1) A person shall not ask for, receive or obtain, or offer or agree to ask for, or receive or obtain, any property or benefit of any kind, whether for the same or any other person, on an understanding that –
(a) any vote of the first-mentioned person;
(b) any candidature of the first-mentioned person;
(c) any support of, or opposition to, a candidate, group of candidates or a political party by the first-mentioned person;
(d) the doing of any act or thing by the first-mentioned person the purpose of which is, or the effect of which is likely to be, to influence the preferences set out in the vote of an elector; or
(e) the order in which the names of candidates nominated for election to the Senate whose names are included in a group in accordance with section 168 appear on a ballot paper,
will, in any manner, be influenced or affected.

There is also a section on disclosure of electoral donations which reads:

All candidates, whether endorsed by a registered political party or not, must submit a return of election donations. The return must reach the AEC’s central office in Canberra within 15 weeks after polling day. This requirement includes candidates who are members of a Senate group.

The return must show the total value of all election gifts received, the number of donors, and the name and address of any donor who gave a gift to the value of $200 or more during the disclosure period. If one donor gave several gifts during the disclosure period which totalled $200 or more the donor’s details must be provided on the return.

Crikey understands that part of the AEC’s preliminary consideration could involve seeking legal advice on whether there is any potential breach of the law.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey