Campaign groups backing independents closely watched by government

By Melissa Coade

December 14, 2021

Ben Morton in parliament
Minister for the public service Ben Morton. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Federal MPs have received an email from special minister of state Ben Morton urging them to tip off the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) about campaign groups ahead of the looming election.

“In recent years, new entities have been established with the sole or dominant purpose of acting as political fundraising vehicles,” Morton wrote to federal MPs in an email leaked to the media.

“Many of these funding vehicles hide in the dark – they were established with the explicit goal of avoiding electoral funding disclosure.”

New laws that were recently passed in parliament with Labor support (Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021) will establish new rules for campaign and advocacy groups wanting to influence the coming election.

The SMH reports that under the rules, electoral spending or fundraising with a view to putting that money toward election activity or donating the funds to an individual who will engage in election activity requires a group to register with the AEC.

If a group should spend more than $14,500 for an election where that expenditure is more than a third of their revenue in a financial year, they must register as a ‘significant third party’.

If a group’s spending on electoral expenditure amounts to more than $250,000 in this financial year or in the last three financial years cumulatively, they must also register to the AEC.

Another effect of the new legislation is that the definition of electoral expenditure has been expanded to count any spending in relation to an election requiring AEC reporting, which now also includes the costs of campaign staff and offices.

“This isn’t about stopping organisations from being able to advocate. This is about transparency for organisations trying to influence voters in an election,” Morton went on to tell MPs, identifying environmental campaign groups such as the Climate 200 and ‘Voices of’ as two examples.

Under the new laws, campaign groups can be fined up to $44,400 for failing to register their spending.

According to The Guardian, advocacy groups are worried that the law reform will force charities, unions, climate and environment groups to disclose all their donors, even where their advocacy is issues-based and not directly election-related.

The Australia Institute is petitioning for the laws to be repealed, launching a campaign that shows new polling found 60% of Australians agreed advocating for policy change was an important aspect of charity work, with only 15% of people opposing the statement.

“If you are aware of any organisations that could even slightly meet these criteria then I ask you to assist the AEC in identifying them so that these organisations and/or individuals can be informed of their registration requirements as soon as possible and avoid the risk of substantial financial penalties for any delay in registration,” Morton wrote.

A number of organisations will meet the compulsory reporting criteria on the day or day after the assent of the new laws. They will have 90 days to register with the AEC.

The minister included in his email to MPs the AEC’s contact details for its disclosure and compliance section.


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