The 2010 election will be held under significantly stronger funding and disclosure requirements if John Faulkner has his way. Faulkner this morning released the Government’s long-awaited Electoral Reform Green Paper and declared that it was critical that reforms be in place prior to the next election.

The paper, prepared by a team of officials from Prime Minister and Cabinet, Finance and the Australian Electoral Commission, has been delayed from mid-year due to extensive consultations with State and Territory governments and their respective electoral authorities. However, Faulkner stressed that there had been no discussions with any political parties so far, including the Labor Party. They would, he said, be consulted in the future and were welcome to make submissions on the Paper.

The Paper contains no recommendations but canvasses a number of fundamental reforms in electoral funding and disclosure, including:

  • Bans or caps on donations and external funding of political parties
  • Different regulation for different types of donors, such as corporation, NGOs and individuals
  • American-style links between public funding and restrictions on private funding
  • Greater rigour in disclosure, including relating to “associated entities” and third parties, and electronic reporting
  • Caps on, and disclosure of, election expenditure, and possibly expanding the definition of expenditure to activities not currently caught
  • The regulation of third party participants such as trade unions, and their expenditure on political activities
  • Greater financial transparency of political parties, including disclosure of their balance sheets and disclosure by branches and campaign committees
  • Expansion of the definition of “associated entities” controlled by political parties
  • Greater harmonisation of Commonwealth, State and Territory laws to reduce confusion

Faulkner stressed that while he had personal views on most of the Green Paper issues, the Government was looking for genuine consultation, including with the Coalition. However, he attacked Malcolm Turnbull for failing to explain why the Coalition had stymied reforms currently before Parliament to reduce disclosure thresholds and ban foreign donations. Those reforms should have already been in place, Faulkner said.

The Government is seeking submissions by late February and has also invited comments on what should be canvassed in a second Green Paper in 2009, relating to issues such as electoral enrolment.

In Faulkner’s view there are serious problems with the current framework that mean Australia is well behind international best practice and that there are growing questions about the integrity of governments and their decisions. “Accountability and transparency are crucial to integrity in government,” he said.

Any real change, however, will depend on Faulkner’s capacity to convince the Greens, Nick Xenophon and Steve Fielding of the benefits of reform. The Coalition has so far shown no inclination to reverse any of the Howard Government’s assaults on funding disclosure and, under a cynical opportunist like Michael Ronaldson, who has carriage of the issue within the Opposition, there’s unlikely to be any.

Peter Fray

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