Senator David Pocock has given in-principle support for caps on political donations and spending, giving a major boost to Labor’s push to legislate the latter measure ahead of the 2025 election.
In a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, Pocock said he would support the measures because a donation cap was the only solution to prevent “wealthy entities from exerting undue influence on an election”.
The comments put Pocock at odds with the Liberal party, which has argued Labor lacks a mandate for the reforms, and contrasts with Climate 200, which says it is open to them but has warned of unintended consequences.
In July the special minister of state, Don Farrell, revealed to Guardian Australia that Labor intends to legislate spending caps, truth in political advertising and to promote adherence to the one vote, one value principal. These would be legislated alongside Labor’s election commitments for real-time disclosure and a $1,000 donation disclosure threshold.
With the Greens also in favour of donation and spending caps, Pocock’s vote could be crucial in passing an electoral reform package in the Senate.
In his submission to the joint standing committee on electoral matters, the ACT independent senator said he supports a donation cap subject to three conditions:
The cap should aggregate the amount donated by an individual to all candidates, parties and their associated entities;
Funding entities like Climate 200 should be able to collect individual donations to “pass through” to candidates and parties and these secondary donations should be uncapped;
Candidates should have a higher cap to donate to their own campaign.
Pocock submitted he was “strongly in favour of the committee considering appropriate expenditure caps, as well as increased public funding of parties and candidates”.
He acknowledged this measure would not “result in a level playing field” but argued it could be made fairer with separate caps at the electorate level for the lower house and per candidate in the Senate.
“It is difficult for independents and micro-parties to take on the recognised brands of the major parties so I would advocate for a slightly higher cap for these groups.”
At the Jscem hearing on Thursday, the New South Wales Nationals state director, Joe Lundy, warned that campaign finance laws “must be applied equally” to parties, associated entities, unions and funding bodies such as Climate 200.
Climate 200 convenor, Simon Holmes à Court, told the hearing that spending and donation caps would “put challengers at a great disadvantage” considering the benefits of incumbency.
These include: access to the electoral roll, taxpayer-funded offices and printing allowances, and the ability to receive tax deductible donations throughout the electoral cycle, not just 30 days out from the election.
“The only way challengers can climb over the incumbents’ wall is a donor-funded ladder. Caps keep playing the field skewed in favour of incumbents.”
Simon Holmes à Court called for an independent assessment of the advantage to be “factored into the caps”.
He also warned spending caps should be imposed seat-by-seat or it would be “grossly unfair”, with independents outgunned by major parties underspending in safe or unwinnable seats to over-spend in marginal seats.
Jonathan Parry, the Greens national secretary, supported Labor’s push for real-time donation disclosure and a $1,000 disclose threshold.
The Greens want donations from industries with a track record of seeking political influence – including fossil fuels, banking, pharmaceutical, defence, alcohol, tobacco, gambling and property development industries – banned with caps on donations from everyone else.
On Thursday Labor’s national secretary, Paul Erickson, clarified that it is in favour of spending caps but restrictions on donations “would be secondary to that”.
On one vote, one value, Erickson, told the hearing that “as long as the parliament remains at its current size, the guarantee in section 24 of the constitution that each original state will choose at least five [MPs] is locking in a distortion between states and territories”.
Erickson noted the average enrolment was 113,000 voters per electorate, but Macarthur in NSW was about 120% the size of that average while Clark in Tasmania was about 65% of it.
Erickson said although Labor doesn’t have a policy on the size of the parliament, the committee should consider addressing malapportionment “over the medium term”.
In their submissions Pocock and the independent MP Monique Ryan both supported truth in political advertising laws.
Erickson told the hearing the laws would result in “enhanced integrity” and greater public confidence that arguments used to sway their votes “are not false or misleading”.
Lundy argued the truth of political claims is “subjective”, but submitted the idea was worth considering.
Earlier, the Australian Electoral Commission’s commissioner Tom Rogers reiterated his view that the AEC should not administer such a regime because “opining on political opinion puts our neutrality at risk”.
Rogers suggested a new agency or the Australian Communications and Media Authority should be responsible if truth in political advertising is legislated, but noted ACMA wasn’t keen on it either.
The Jscem chair, Labor MP Kate Thwaites, said it was a “problem the committee is grappling with” that agencies give a “consistent answer” that they don’t want to be responsible for truth in political advertising laws.
In her submission Ryan called for the voting age to be dropped to 16, echoing a call from academic George Williams.
Erickson told the hearing “the Labor Party doesn’t have a policy position in favour of lowering the voting age”.