For the past couple of days, The Age has been going hard on the failure of a Liberal Party ‘associated entity’, Business First, to file its required disclosure forms. It was the lead story yesterday, and still on page one this morning.
The purpose of these laws is to reveal the identities of financial supporters of political parties. While Business First is undoubtedly in technical breach of the law, what The Age isn’t telling you is that it had no donors large enough to require disclosure. If they had followed the law, Business First’s AEC form would, like the vast majority of forms submitted to the AEC, have received no attention at all because it contains nothing of any interest.
The Commonwealth Electoral Act is probably the most disobeyed piece of legislation on the Commonwealth statute books. While this is mostly people avoiding their legal obligation to turn up to the polling booths, there is also widespread non-compliance with the paperwork required to be a political entity or a donor above the threshold.
Many donors either aren’t aware that they have to comply or, understandably enough, can’t be bothered redundantly repeating what the political parties are already reporting. And the political parties themselves are decentralised voluntary organisations, which makes monitoring everything that is going on and ensuring compliance quite difficult (which seems to have been the case with Business First, which from yesterday’s report appears to have been in breach of Liberal Party rules as well as the Electoral Act).
At a workshop on electoral law I attended a couple of weeks ago, a paper from someone from the NSW Election Funding Authority reported that they still had 1,500 unresolved compliance issues from the two years to mid-2010. Since then, reforms to the law have massively increased complexity and the compliance burden on political actors. Non-compliance is likely to skyrocket. If as seems likely similar laws are enacted federally, we could be looking at 10,000+ non-compliance cases over an electoral cycle.
Some of the inevitable stuff-ups will result in stories like those we have seen in The Age the last couple of days, with reputations harmed over trivial breaches of the law. Another reason to keep the laws as simple as possible, keep all minor political activity out of the regulatory system, and only focus on the big donors and spenders that might raise issues worthy of media and public attention.