Gutwein defends exclusion of Tasmanian Legislative Council from donations disclosure laws

Critics say transparency should apply to all political candidates
 April 29, 2021
Published:  April 29, 2021
Premier Peter Gutwein on the campaign trail. Image: Bob Burton.

Premier Peter Gutwein has defended his government’s plan to exempt candidates for the Tasmanian upper house from having to disclose campaign donations, prompting criticism from a public integrity advocate and opposition parties.

When Gutwein called an early election for May 1 he announced that, as electoral reform legislation had not been adopted, the Liberal Party would voluntarily disclose donations received in the election campaign over $5,000.

However, he insisted the voluntary disclosure would not apply to candidates for Legislative Council seats.

At a media conference on Thursday, he was asked whether there was an integrity risk with Legislative Council candidates not being required to disclose any donations.

“They are run under a different system,” he said.

Under the Electoral Act, Legislative Council candidates are limited to spending $18,000 between January 1 and polling day and political parties are banned from contributing to candidates’ campaigns, but there is no requirement they disclose where donations come from. The seats of Derwent and Windermere are being contested on Saturday.

Han Aulby, the executive director of the Sydney-based Centre for Public Integrity, said disclosure regulations should apply to all elected representatives.

“To alleviate the risk of undue influence from political donations, donations over $1000 should be disclosed in real time,” she said.

In late February, the government unveiled proposed changes to Tasmania's Electoral Act, including requiring disclosure of political donations somewhere in the range of between $3000 and $5000.

Gutwein said at the time: “Increasing transparency and fairness is the right thing to do to ensure that the public continue to have faith in the outcomes of elections into the future.”

“Every Tasmanian voter, whether they are voting in the lower house or upper house should know where the money is coming from for the candidates who are putting themselves forward.”

The Liberal Party has disclosed just one donor, a $50,000 contribution from Richard Smith, since calling the election on March 26. The Labor Party also adopted the $5000 threshold and has disclosed three contributors. The Tasmanian Greens have disclosed 17 donations over $1500.

Gutwein did not directly respond to a question from Tasmanian Inquirer on whether he thought the $5000 threshold was too high.

“This election is the most transparent campaign that has ever been run in Tasmania,” Gutwein told a media conference on Thursday.

Cassy O’Connor, the leader of the Tasmanian Greens, said the government was “transparent alright - we can see straight through them”.

“They are trying to hide the sources of the vast, vast bulk of the money that has come into Liberal party coffers,” she said. “It is coming in from big gambling, big logging, mining and from developers, and it is being hidden from the Tasmanian people.”

Asked if there is an integrity risk associated with the lack of disclosure for Legislative Council candidates, O’Connor was adamant: “Absolutely."

“Every Tasmanian voter, whether they are voting in the lower house or upper house should know where the money is coming from for the candidates who are putting themselves forward. There should be absolute transparency about our funding sources because when there isn’t it erodes trust in democracy.”

Ella Haddad, Labor’s Shadow Attorney-General, agreed disclosure should extend to the Legislative Council.

“Our draft bill would make it a requirement for all donations over $1000 – including where multiple donations within a year exceeded the threshold – to be disclosed within 30 days,” she said.

Tasmanian Inquirer attempted to contact Labor state secretary, Stuart Benson, to clarify whether the voluntary disclosure of donations over $5000 applied to its Legislative Council candidates.

Bob Burton is a Hobart-based author, researcher, editor and freelance journalist. He is the Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments for the US-based non-profit group Global Energy Monitor. His freelance journalism has been published in a wide range of news outlets from the British Medical Journal to the US-based PR Watch.

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