3.1 Registered political parties are required to disclose totals of certain categories of expenditure incurred on campaign goods or services used from the issue of the write until the close of polling. The six specified categories are:
3.2 The requirement for parties to lodge election returns was part of the original scheme but was removed for the 1993 election. It was subsequently reinstated as part of the 1995 amendments. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its Report of the Inquiry into all Aspects of the Conduct of the 1996 Federal Election and Matters Related Thereto recommended the abolition of returns of electoral expenditure by political parties.
3.3 Election returns were due 15 weeks after polling day and then placed on public inspection 24 weeks after polling day which for this election was Monday, 19 August 1996. Upon public release of these returns the media's primary focus was on how much was spent on the campaign overall, including which parties spent the most and by how much. (The media's other main interest is election donations, but parties only disclose these in their annual returns.) Some media reports also touched on instances where election funding receipts exceeded reported campaign expenditure. The following chart shows electoral expenditure and election funding of parties. A more detailed breakdown of electoral expenditure reported by parties is provided at Attachment 2.
3.4 Candidates and Senate groups are each entitled to appoint an agent to assume responsibility for funding and disclosure matters Where no appointment is made candidates are deemed to be their own agent and, in the case of a Senate group, the candidate listed first on the ticket is deemed to be the agent.
3.5 The Act currently allows the appointment of agents up until the close of nominations. Because many candidates and some Senate groups, particularly independents, do not nominate until virtually the close of nominations, they do not have time to appoint an agent. As an agent's roles in funding and disclosure matters do not manifest themselves until after polling day, there is the opportunity to extend the deadline for the appointment of candidate and Senate group agents beyond the close of nominations.
Candidates and Senate groups be allowed to appoint agents up to 6pm on polling eve.
3.6 All House of Representatives and Senate candidates must disclose election donations received. Jointly endorsed and unendorsed Senate groups must also lodge donations returns.
3.7 Where a candidate receives donations from a single person or organisation totalling $200 or more, the candidate must disclose the name and address of that donor and the date and value of each donation received. The donor must also separately disclose donations totalling $200 or more made to candidates. The $200 threshold has not changed since 1984, with the result that donations that may now be considered minor are still required to be disclosed along with the significant donors. In comparison, the disclosure threshold for Senate groups is already set at $1 000, which appears to be a more appropriate level.
The threshold for disclosure of donations to candidates be raised to $1 000.
3.8 House of Representatives and ungrouped Senate candidates, as well as jointly endorsed and unendorsed Senate groups, are required to disclose totals of electoral expenditure in the same six specified categories as political parties. As with parties and 'third parties' there is no requirement to detail to whom payments were made.
3.9 The Act deems that donations received and expenditure incurred by the campaign committees of endorsed candidates are to be disclosed by the party, not the candidate. As is the case at every election, most endorsed candidates submitted 'nil' returns. For this reason there was little interest shown in these returns when placed on public display apart from those of some independents.
3.10 'Third party' is used here as a short-hand term to describe a person or organisation, other than a registered political party, candidate, Senate group, broadcaster or publisher, who is under an obligation to furnish a disclosure return following an election. Typically, this covers donors to candidates or lobby groups undertaking an independent advertising campaign during the election.
3.11 Third parties are required to disclose donations totalling $200 or more made to an individual candidate. This threshold for disclosure is in line with that of candidates when disclosing donations received. As proposed at Recommendation 3 above, the AEC believes that the disclosure threshold for donations to candidates should be raised to $1 000.
3.12 Where third parties have incurred electoral expenditure totalling $200 or more they are required to furnish a return. Disclosure is limited to the same six categories as those specified for political parties, candidates and Senate groups (see paragraph 3.1 above).
3.13 The $200 threshold has not changed since disclosure was introduced. This threshold is no longer considered to be set at an appropriate level, particularly given the steep increase in the cost of broadcast advertising. The AEC believes that this disclosure threshold should be raised to at least $1 000 so that disclosure obligations are placed only upon those third parties who are involving themselves in an election campaign to a significant degree.
The threshold for disclosure of electoral expenditure by third parties be raised to $1 000.00.
3.14 The legislation also requires third parties to disclose donations they have received which total $1 000 or more from a single person or organisation and which were then used to incur expenditure for a political purpose of at least $1 000. These thresholds are considered to still be appropriate at this time.
3.15 The number of third party returns received following the 1996 election was well down on the previous election. This result was not unexpected for a number of reasons, not the least being that donors to political parties who previously lodged returns following an election now lodge annual returns each financial year.
3.16 Broadcasters and publishers are required to disclose details of electoral advertisements placed with them over the period from the issue of the writ until the close of polling. (A publisher is only required to lodge a return where the total charged for electoral advertisements was more than $1 000.) The details required to be disclosed for each advertisement include who placed the advertisement and on whose behalf, the date of the broadcast or publication, the time it was broadcast or the page upon which it appeared, the charge and whether that charge was made at normal commercial rates.
3.17 The Act defines electoral advertisements and, apart from those which are obviously election related, includes advertisements which do not directly advocate a vote but which may indirectly influence an elector by commenting on an election issue. Some difficulty is experienced in achieving a consistent approach from broadcasters and publishers when completing their returns because some apply their own interpretation of what constitutes an electoral advertisement and only list advertisements placed directly on behalf of candidates and political parties. In other cases, such 'oversights' are almost certainly due to an unwillingness to accord any diligence to their disclosure responsibilities.
3.18 Another perennial problem is that the manner of recording advertisements in some cases does not allow the broadcaster or publisher to fully disclose all the details required by the Act. For instance, some publishers do not record the addresses of persons who pay for their advertisements over the counter as these details are not necessary for their billing purposes. Also, in many instances there is no record that advertisements were placed on behalf of a candidate or political party. Consequently, it appears from the return that the person placing the advertisement is, in fact, a 'third party' possibly with a separate disclosure responsibility.
3.19 Broadcaster and publisher returns must be lodged within eight weeks following polling day, which for this election meant the due date was 29 April 1996. The uneven quality of preparation of returns was also reflected in their uneven receipt and the AEC was left with a significant follow-up.
3.20 Broadcaster and publisher returns are rarely ever inspected once placed on the public record. The AEC, therefore, questions the continued value of these returns particularly given the considerable administrative burden and expense they place upon broadcasters and publishers. If the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters in its report on the 1996 federal to abolish party electoral expenditure returns and the detailed reporting of expenditure in annual returns are implemented, however, the information currently available in broadcaster and publisher returns will not be available elsewhere in disclosure returns. It may be prudent, therefore, to wait until after the next general election to make a final assessment as to whether broadcaster and publisher returns should be retained.