Tasmanian Times

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

Bob Burton

Will voters find out who is funding Tasmanian local government election campaigns?

When Tasmanians vote in the October local government elections they will have no way of knowing who is funding the election campaigns of the candidates due to the state’s outdated local government regulations.

Nor will voters ever find out, as Tasmania is the only state in Australia that has no requirement for local government candidates to disclose who funded their campaign.

In October 263 councillor positions will be vacant across Tasmania’s 29 councils. Electors will also be voting for the influential positions of Mayor and Deputy Mayor in each of the councils.

While regulations under Tasmania’s local government act limit political advertising to $5,000 for candidates for a councillor position or $8000 for those contesting elections both as councillor and Deputy Mayor or Lord Mayor, there are two large loopholes.

The first is that the advertising spending limit this year only applies for expenditure incurred between August 14 and October 28. Before then the sky is the limit.

The second loophole is that there are no restrictions on who donations can be accepted from and the identity of donors remains a secret no matter how much they contributed.

The only disclosure requirement for candidates is that within 45 days of the declaration of the poll results they must submit a statement detailing what campaign advertising they paid for. (See page 14 in the Tasmanian Electoral Commission’s Candidate Booklet.)

The effect of the two loopholes is potentially significant. Under current Tasmanian law it would be perfectly legal for a candidate to raise $100,000 for an election campaign fund and launch a $95,000 advertising blitz ending on August 13 and then spend another $5000 during the regulated August 14 to October 28 period. A high profile advertising campaign in the month before spending limits kick in could ensure a well-funded candidate builds a commanding public profile rival candidates can never effectively compete with.

While many candidates fund their campaigns out of their own pockets, bigger budget campaigns require larger donations. However, even if all of the money for the winning candidates came from developers who were pursuing development applications for controversial projects, none would have to be disclosed.

Scandals everywhere

Over the past twenty years public disclosure of political donations to council candidates has become a central element in ensuring the credibility of local government elections and preventing corruption.

In a 2001 report – Corruption Resistance Strategies – Researching risks in local government – the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) noted that “we consistently receive more complaints about local government than any other area within the NSW public sector.”

Based on a survey of council general managers, ICAC reported that one quarter of general managers surveyed “saw bribery as a major corruption risk in the area of development” and that one in nine council staff “said they were aware of instances of bribery, particularly during the development approval process.”

One of the factors increasing the risk of corruption in local government, the report noted, was that councils “have a lot of discretionary powers within their decision-making processes.”

A September 2013 Victorian Government review of local government electoral standards noted that in 2012 only one in eight candidates received a donation over the $500 threshold but pointed out that most disclosable donations were to candidates in inner urban areas. Of the $1.19 million donated in disclosable donations to candidates across the state, more than half were to big-budget campaigns for the City of Melbourne. (See page 36)

In the past decade controversies over the influence of donors to local government candidates have been all too common. In New South Wales an inquiry into the 2004 Tweed Shire Council election described a majority of councillors elected as “puppets” of a developer lobby group, Tweed Directions. The Minister for Local Government, Tony Kelly, sacked the council and administrators were appointed.

In Queensland a Crime and Misconduct Commission inquiry into the Gold Coast City Council election of 2004 found that “secrecy, deceit and misinformation” during the campaign by a developer backed candidates had “corrupted the electoral process.”

A few years later the Wollongong City Council was sacked after an Independent Commission Against Corruption recommended a raft of charges against Council officers over a $100 million development proposal. ICAC also found that three former councillors had “engaged in corrupt conduct by soliciting a political donation … in the order of $20,000 in return for supporting” a development proposal of the donor and that they had completed “false or misleading pecuniary interest returns.”

Ahead of the 2012 Melbourne City Council election, The Age raised questions about who was funding the campaigns of candidates, with the big-budget campaign of Lord Mayoral candidate Robert Doyle becoming the focus of a series of stories. While Doyle’s bid to be elected Mayor was ultimately successful, the media attention led to debate about the need to ensure disclosure of donors before votes were cast. After the votes were counted, Doyle and others disclosed their donors.

However, the controversy persisted and the perils of developer donations was highlighted when the Council could not make a planning decision because members of ‘Team Doyle’ and one other Councillor declared a conflict of interest over donations from the project proponent.

The sun doesn’t shine in Tasmania

Tasmania is alone amongst other states in not requiring disclosure of donations to local government candidates. (In the Northern Territory political donations are also unregulated while the Australian Capital Territory has no local government.)

In Queensland local government candidates are required to disclose the total amount of funding plus details of all individuals who contributed more than $200 while in South Australia the threshold is set at $500.

In New South Wales local government candidates have to declare all donations over $1000. In addition the Electoral Funding Authority states that donations are banned from accepting donations from “property developers, tobacco and alcohol and gambling business entities”.

In New South Wales the disclosure requires also extend to those seeking planning approval from council. According to the Independent Commission Against Corruption:

“any person who makes a relevant planning application or submission to a council is required to disclose all donations of $1000 or more made in the last two years to any councillors. Similarly, gifts made to any councillor or employee of a council in the same period are also required to be disclosed. Councils are required to make disclosures of reportable political donations or gifts available to the public.”

In Victoria all donations in cash or in kind over $500 have to be disclosed (see page 33) while in Western Australia “local government candidates and donors have a duty of disclosure for electoral donations” over $2000.

In early 2012 the then Labor Attorney General Brian Wightman initiated a review of Tasmania’s electoral disclosure laws. However, the focus of the discussion paper he released was solely on the two houses of parliament and not local government. The Tasmanian Branch of the Liberal Party argued in their submission to the review against any changes to electoral law. While not specifically mentioning local government elections, they argued that changes to donation, spending and disclosure laws claiming would “inevitably lead to increased litigation – a very unhealthy development for our democracy.” The submission did not elaborate on why disclosure would result in increased litigation.

When the lack of local government disclosure of donations was raised earlier this year, Tasmania’s Attorney General, Vanessa Goodwin, signalled that she had no intention of initiating any changes. Requiring disclosure of donations to local government candidates, she told The Mercury, “is not something we are considering at this point in time.”

For a detailed comparative assessment of Australian states’ donor disclosure and other key electoral integrity standards see: The regulation of political donations and gifts in Queensland: a comparative analysis, Crime and Misconduct Commission, December 2012. (Pdf)

Alderman calls for candidates to commit to donations disclosure

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Peter Gutwein: 102nd LGAT Conference

Nick McKim: Still Time to Ensure Transparency for Local Government Elections

The Mercury: Clarity call on local government election donors

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Suzi

    August 19, 2014 at 12:29 am

    And what difference would this make? There are ways and means around everything…

    I am still astounded at the piles of evidence I have against Council and the absolute denial by pretty well all Alderman of any wrong doing on Council’s part (and of course Council officials part) They simply refuse to look at the facts and the evidence!

    Alderman appear to be merely puppets for a higher Official? I certainly can’t find anyone to challenge that higher official? So why have them at all? As far as I am concerned they serve no purpose for the good of any community at the minute.

    And yes I am tired…. I am tired of fighting corruption…

  2. Robin Charles Halton

    July 22, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Hobart Mayor Damon Thomas needs to quickly reassert his position to remain as a creditable person suitable for reelection!

    I remind him that by holding back on the knowledge that ratepayer money, believed to be millions was invested without our consent to be handed to Kalis Properties for the rebuilding of Myer.

    The longer it takes the Mayor to respond the more likely that he should not remain in public office.

  3. Geoff

    July 21, 2014 at 12:39 pm

    If it’s something the Tasmanian Times is interested in it could function as an additional page on the site, otherwise a separate site, but that would need a greater amount of promotion to get over being unknown.

    The big question is, how is it run? Do the candidates log in and do their own declaring? Does someone manage it by accepting documents from them? The latter option would require less work up front.

    I would assume the candidates will keep a spreadsheet or similar file of their donations for finance and tax department purposes, even if they’re not required to release it. A simple system where it stores a copy of that document next to their name, divided up into council areas wouldn’t be too difficult to implement.

    Publicity and promotion could occur through social media using the grassroots approach, and anyone with more enthusiasm and resources to take that aspect further could do so.

    I’d be happy to put some time into the site development side of things.

    Perhaps the TT editors/owners can offer their thoughts?

  4. Steve

    July 21, 2014 at 2:29 am

    #3 Excellent suggestion Geoff. Public pressure to disclose; if most do, those who don’t would have to do some pretty nifty shuffling to maintain the high moral ground.

  5. Ty Barwick

    July 21, 2014 at 12:41 am

    In every other industry we promote transparency why shouldn’t government uphold the same principals. Its hardly fair to get a morality lesson or representation from someone who doesn’t practice what they preach.

  6. pat synge

    July 20, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    #3 Geoff’s plan sounds like a good one.

    What’s involved in actually implementing it?

    A dedicated website?

    Facebook?

    Publicity/promotion?

    Is there anyone out there with the time/energy/skills to make this a reality?

  7. Geoff

    July 20, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    There is a relatively clear way forward on this issue.

    We need to ask that all those standing for election voluntarily release details of donations received. As voters, we blacklist anyone who refuses to do so based on the logic that they obviously have something to hide.

    Step two is to ask that candidates indicate their support for introducing legislation to ensure that this happens by default, once they are elected.

    Yes, this legislation might need to be enacted at the state level, whilst we’re only talking about local councillors, but if the majority of local councillors are calling on their state counterparts to “make it so”, then we can wrangle about it from there, and vote accordingly the next time state elections come up.

    As voters, transparency from our elected representatives and knowledge of their funding comes before consideration of any policy stance they may have.

  8. Karl Stevens

    July 20, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    268 local government councillor positions will be up for election in October. I don’t think such a total ‘clean-out’ has ever happened in Tasmania before.

    I’m predicting a result similar to the last senate election. Maybe more ‘bogans’ will be elected to local government rather than the current ‘pillars of society’ with their religious, conservative and self-serving values.

    I would like to see more real Australians in local government. People who love and appreciate Tasmania for it’s unique natural values rather than trying to re-create the urban sprawl and other failed social experiments that the current councils seem to so slavishly imitate.

  9. Ted Mead

    July 20, 2014 at 1:14 pm

    Welcome to Tasmania – the land shrouded in secrecy, deception and lies in all forms of governance.

    This article highlights Just another example of why Tasmanian needs an anti corruption agency or commission.

    As far as local government goes I suspect there is far less corruption than there is on the mainland or our State representation.

    In most cases, alderman have vested interests in their local community, which leads to the grey areas of big business association. Disclosure of their election donations would certainly expose these affiliations.

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