31 May 2018
AEC guidelines confirm Vinnies’ fears of unworkable legislation
The Australian Electoral Commission’s (AEC) guidelines on political expenditure released this week have failed to resolve the ambiguity of poor legislation which will result in over 1,000 charities having to register as third parties in an election.
The major problem relates to a new clause in the Commonwealth Electoral Act that was changed in September 2017 and which came into force on March 15, 2018.
The clause includes within the definition of “political expenditure”:
"public expression of views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election (whether or not a writ has been issued for the election) by any means"
The AEC’s explanation of what is captured in this phrase includes the following
"In the absence of an actual election being called, to determine whether or not a matter is likely to be before electors involves assessment of how topical the issue is and the difference, if any, between the policy platforms of each party.
An assessment is required to ascertain the subjective purposes behind a specific public expression of the relevant issue.
The nearer in time the public expression to the possible date for holding an election, the more likely that the views will meet the subjective intention of placing an issue before electors in an election."
In a previous submission to the Senate Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations, the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council said:
The consequences of this have not been well thought through. It will result in difficulties in differentiating real third parties in an election from organisations who are making comments on public policy as part of their mission or purpose.
It will also result in needless red tape and extra costs to charities. …
And critically, it will have a chilling effect on the public expression of social, economic and environmental concerns by charities, thereby undermining rather than strengthening the integrity of our democratic political system.
Mr Frank Brassil, spokesperson for the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council said,
“This new clause in the Commonwealth Electoral Act is completely unworkable. It is vague, tendentious and open to a wide range of interpretations. It may seriously limit the ability of apolitical organisations such as the St Vincent de Paul Society to properly speak on behalf of the most vulnerable in our community. It will be a nightmare for the AEC to administer and it will produce pointless administrative burden. It is not appropriate for such a subjective clause to be in the Electoral Act.”
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