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The Current State of Australian Campaign Funding Regulation

The next speaker at CMPM2014 is Graeme Orr, whose interest is in the legal frameworks for political campaign funding. The law focusses mainly on accounting and auditing aspects of this, but indirectly affects a great deal more – campaign aesthetics, styles, strategies, staffing, and much more.

The law regulating political finance hasn't changed much overall, but the way in which it is being administered tends to swing between different states. Such concerns have a long history – even in pre-modern times there were concerns about vote-buying, porkbarrelling, and overwhelming an electorate with campaign materials.

Restrictions were gradually introduced over the past 100-odd years, focussing first on candidates (before parties were recognised as legal entities), though in 1970s Australia a more laissez-faire regime on funding was prominent for a few years. Since the 1980s, Australia has laws on disclosing at least larger donations, however.

There is a regulatory smorgasbord of options, Graeme says: disclosure requirements (which usually have a fairly limited impact), public aid for parties and candidates (thought of as "clean money", but simply adding to corporate and other donations), and caps and limits on donations and expenditure (which Australia has only begun to experiment with). All of these are driven by a range of values: integrity, political liberty, political equality, and the stability of political parties; and they address concerns over partisan advantage, party machine interests, and scandals. Notably, the Liberals have recently been more active in driving reform, for a range of reasons.

At the Commonwealth level, there has been a long period of inertia, against some significant reforms at the State level – though such reforms have also been patchy and at times motivated by partisan motives. A range of hybrid models are being pursued at State level. Further, the High Court has also been active in this area, placing some constraints on lawmakers and calling on parliaments to pass evidence-based laws and ensure political equality.

A key topic at the moment is the question of increasing public funding for parties: a range of models are being explored here, from full public funding for parties (which could be an incentive to create parties just to cash in) to reimbursing a substantial component of campaign funding (which can be used to discriminate against new parties and independents, as it is in Queensland).

The challenges in all this include balancing public and private funding, and any caps that may be imposed. Funding limitations also encourage the rise of millionaire-led parties, from Clive Palmer to Silvio Berlusconi. There are also questions over the development of a uniform federal system, to do away with the current hodge-lodge of laws and electoral commissions. The High Court is a useful backstop to avoid the worst excesses, but there is also a risk of it meddling, and thereby chilling genuine reforms.