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Fairer elections make for healthier Australians

Introduction by Croakey: Civil society and public health advocate groups are urging the Federal Government and Opposition to support recommendations made in two recent parliamentary inquiries into the influence of commercial influences on electoral matters and gambling, both critical to public health.

While welcoming the 31 recommendations of the ‘You win some, you lose more‘ report, the Alliance for Gambling Reform said in a statement that bipartisan support must be given to the implementation of the recommendations.

Additionally, Chief Advocate of the Alliance Reverend Tim Costello said: “Australia must put a public health lens to its efforts to combat gambling harm, just as it had done in tackling tobacco.” (See more responses to the report at the end of this article.)

Meanwhile, civil society alliance #OurDemocracy has welcomed recommendations from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM), although caution that harmful industries could “have an edge over public health advocacy at election time”.

Below, Saffron Zomer, lawyer, strategist and Executive Director of the Australian Democracy Network, discusses the recommendations for electoral reform and the long road to get here, saying: “It’s taken sterling work from the civil society sector over many years to get resounding recommendations to limit big money in our elections.”


Saffron Zomer writes:

The integrity of our elections doesn’t just matter in principle – every election, policies that impact our health are on the line. The publication of the interim report on the 2022 federal election last week is a significant turning point in the long fight to prevent harmful industries from buying our elections.

The details of campaign finance reform can be dry and feel distant from the real problems we all deal with in daily life. But this stuff is actually fundamental to everything we care about. Whatever issue it is that keeps you up at night – whether it’s the climate crisis, public health or finding a place to live that you can afford, the impact of ‘big money’ on our democracy is part of the problem.

That’s why the interim report from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM), which landed last week, is actually exciting reading for anyone who wants to make progress on an important issue and finds they are pushing against the weight of powerful vested interests.

Pushing open heavy doors

I’ve spent 15 years pushing open the shockingly heavy doors of Parliament House to advocate to our elected representatives in the public interest. I do so alongside many public health advocates.

A big part of public interest advocacy in federal politics is pushing those heavy doors open for community voices to be heard in the ‘halls of power’.

Harmful industries like fossil fuels, weapons manufacturers, gambling, and big alcohol, sugar and tobacco, walk through those same doors in parliament with much greater ease – at least you have to assume this based on the fleets of them that walk the halls of Parliament every day.

Big money has a way of greasing the hinges in an electoral system where the amount a party or candidate spends is overwhelmingly correlated with their chance of winning office.

The JSCEM recommendations for reforms could, if well executed, help those doors open for all of us, not just the wealthy and powerful few.

In their report, JSCEM recommended caps on campaign donations and spending, a significantly lower threshold for donations disclosure (from $15,200 to $1,000), and the introduction of real-time disclosure – so we know who is bankrolling our elections.

If (a strong if) these reforms are implemented properly, it would make our elections so much less vulnerable to being bought by harmful industries. When we start to push big money out of our political system, we are making room for people and the public interest to get in.

Uneven playing field

That said, there are recommendations that pose significant risk – the wrong settings for donations and election spending caps could result in an even more unlevel playing field, diminishing community voices.

There is a particular concern around donation caps that would apply to third parties. Charities and not-for-profits are the only third parties who get their income from donations, so this reform would curb charities’ contribution around election time, but not the contribution of industry lobbies and peaks.

Australian NGOs advocate for policies that stop people from getting sick. If the civil society sector is prevented from ensuring public health is firmly on the agenda at election time – but other third parties are unencumbered by the same caps – we’d have a big problem on our hands. The voices of charities would be hushed, while the voices of harmful industries would not.

There is a view that donations from particularly harmful industries should be banned from donating altogether. The #OurDemocracy campaign prefers to solve this problem by reducing the amount that any entity can donate to a political party or candidate, so that the corruption risk is lowered across the board.

When the Labor Party, and eventually the Liberal Party, ceased accepting donations from the tobacco lobby, there was a positive change in the management of tobacco industry regulation. In Australia the same could someday be true with regards to gambling, alcohol, unhealthy foods, and fossil fuels.

#OurDemocracy’s analysis of the JSCEM recommendations

Civil society collaboration and advocacy

This is why, as dry as campaign finance is, our civil society alliance #OurDemocracy have spent the past two years consulting stakeholders, and endless hours working to get the details right.

Fairer elections are the key to getting big dirty money out of our political system so that we can get the health of people and the planet into the heart of it.

To influence these recommendations, JSCEM heard from civil society organisations that comprise #OurDemocracy through submissions and meetings with ministers and committee members.

We facilitated the ability of ordinary Australians to have their voices heard, and JSCEM received 317 submissions from supporters of the #OurDemocracy campaign. For such a dry, complex area of reform, that’s really impressive and inspiring political engagement from the public.

Changemakers know these big moments never just happen. It’s taken sterling work from the civil society sector over many years to get resounding recommendations to limit big money in our elections.

So this moment is definitely a big milestone on our journey to a healthier democracy where dollars don’t determine policy, people do. But to get there, we need the Government to commit to bring civil society leaders and stakeholders to the table, and work with us to get the reforms in their best shape, which would improve the shape of public health in Australia.

The risk of getting it wrong is high – we could see a less open Parliament and a suppression of public interest advocacy.

The opportunity of getting it right is exciting – a fairer and more open democracy, where our voices are more equal, and our representatives are more accountable to us, the people.

Powerful industries that use their money, power and influence to protect business models that harm our health and destroy our planet have held sway over our democracy for too long.

It’s a big step to see a parliamentary committee recommend reforms that could start to reduce this influence so our democracy can work the way it’s supposed to. The details matter – a lot. And the way to get them right is through genuine consultation with all the voices which participate in our public debates.

As civil society organisations, our only interest in this is a functional democratic system that we can all trust.

We will work together to continue to push gently but persistently on the doors of parliament to ensure that these doors remain open for all. The health of our democracy, and our people, depends on it.

Saffron Zomer is a lawyer, strategist and Executive Director of the Australian Democracy Network.

Saffron Zomer. Photo supplied

About #OurDemocracy

The #OurDemocracy campaign was developed by three organisations – the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Human Rights Law Centre and the Australian Democracy Network – together with the input of over 30 more. These core organisations continue to develop policy solutions and campaign for reforms, but just as our democracy belongs to all Australians, the #OurDemocracy campaign belongs to a wide range of people and organisations passionate about making our democracy fairer for all. Join us.

Whether you’re an individual, a local community group, or a million-dollar organisation – if you, like us, are passionate about protecting our democracy, we encourage you to pick up the Framework for a Fair Democracy and the #OurDemocracy campaign materials and champion them in your community.

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