In 1984, the Commonwealth introduced the registration of political parties for electoral purposes. One benefit of registration for political parties was that their names could be printed alongside their candidates’ names on ballot papers. In 2016, the law was changed to allow the logos as well as names of registered parties to appear on federal ballot papers. Rather than voters having to work out which candidates belonged to which party, ballot papers now contain this information for registered parties. This is particularly useful for smaller parties that may not have enough members or volunteers to give out ‘How to Vote’ cards at every polling place, informing voters about their candidates.
Other benefits of registration include the right for parties to receive public election funding. Although individual candidates of unregistered parties can also receive this funding, registration allows funding to be centrally administered by parties. Registered parties can also coordinate nomination processes and are eligible to receive copies of electoral rolls and other electorate information.
To be eligible to register under the Commonwealth Electoral Act, parties must:
- have a written constitution;
- have as an objective endorsing candidates to contest federal elections;
- either have at least 500 members, or have at least one member of parliament at Commonwealth, state or territory level; and
- pay an application fee of $500.
Members must be unique to each political party – that is, not also relied on by other political parties for their registration, but need not be eligible voters. This enables non-citizens and those under 18 to join political parties.
Applications are made to the Australian Electoral Commission, which verifies the claims made in applications and advertises proposed registrations so that people can lodge objections. Certain party names, including lengthy and obscene names or names which may cause confusion with existing registered parties, are not allowed. For example, in 2011 prominent Queensland parliamentarian Bob Katter applied to register Bob Katter’s Australia Party. The initial application was rejected by the Australian Electoral Commission on the basis that the shortened version of the name that was to appear on the ballot paper ‘The Australia Party’ could be too easily confused with other parties. Katter subsequently amended the party name and ‘Katter’s Australian Party’ was registered in September 2011.
Once registered, a party is added to the Register of Political Parties. Registered parties must lodge annual financial statements. The Australian Electoral Commission audits their compliance with the conditions of registration. Parties can be de-registered if they cease to exist, no longer comply with the requirements for registration, or were registered fraudulently or by misrepresentation.
The requirement that political parties have 500 members for federal registration was challenged in the High Court by the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) in Mulholland v Australian Electoral Commission HCA 41; (2004) 209 ALR 582. The Court rejected the argument that an unregistered party’s inability to place a party name on the ballot paper was an undue restriction on political communication and upheld the ‘500 rule’.
The relevant electoral acts in most states and territories also provide for party registration and de-registration. The required number of party members for registration under state and territory laws varies from 100 (ACT) to 750 (NSW). Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party was de-registered in Queensland after the Queensland Supreme Court found in 1999 that it had been registered under the Queensland Electoral Act 1992 by fraud or misrepresentation. One Nation’s constitutional structure meant that the party itself did not have the required 500 members.
Election funding and candidate finances
NSW first introduced public funding of candidates’ election campaigns, tied to public disclosure of candidate’s donations and expenditure, for the 1981 state election. Commonwealth public funding laws followed in 1984. Queensland, West Australia and the ACT now have systems of public funding for election candidates. The measure has been debated in some other states but not introduced.
The introduction of public funding of candidates usually has been supported by the ALP and opposed by the Coalition parties. The rationale for the introduction of public funding for federal elections was to assist parties in financial difficulty, to lessen corruption, to avoid excessive reliance upon ‘special interests’, to equalise opportunities between the parties and to stimulate political education and research. Arguments against public funding usually rest on responsibility, public cost and fairness - candidates should be responsible for raising their own support, taxpayers should not have to support the activities of political parties. The scheme is seen to be unfair in that most of the public funding goes to Labor or the Coalition, further entrenching their duopoly in the electoral system.
The Commonwealth legislation provides for candidates to be paid an amount for every first preference vote they win, as long as they win more than four per cent of the first preference vote in their electorate. At the 2013 federal election, the amount was $2.49 per vote. Total candidate funding in 2013 was just over $58 million. Candidates who are endorsed by registered political parties do not receive funding directly – it is paid to the registered parties. The relevant states and territories have similar funding formulae and procedures.
Australia, like a number of other western democracies, has laws that require parties, candidates and others to reveal publicly their election related financial relationships. The main argument for such financial disclosure is transparency. Disclosure reduces the capacity for secret policy deals between parties or candidates and their financial backers. The main argument against disclosure is privacy. People should be able to donate money to whomever they want without facing possible intimidation or other repercussions of that donation becoming public knowledge.
Candidates and parties must disclose donations they receive to the Australian Electoral Commission, which makes information about these donations public, and posts all disclosure returns on its website.
Parties and candidates are required to disclose the overall value of donations, the total number of sources of donations and the names of donors who give more than $13,000 to a candidate or party (as at May 2016). Other individuals or groups who spend $13,000 on electoral purposes (such as advertising in support of a party or candidate or donating money) are also required to disclose this.
Political finance in NSW is highly regulated by comparison to the federal disclosure regime. Measures introduced by the Keneally Labor government in 2008 and 2010 placed caps on political donations and expenditure in return for increases in public funding. They also created a class of ‘prohibited donors’ to election candidates that included businesses involved in property development, liquor, tobacco and gaming. In 2012 the O’Farrell Liberal Government banned all donations to political parties and candidates from anyone or anything other than a person registered on the electoral roll. While the O’Farrell Government’s blanket ban was successfully challenged in the High Court Unions NSW v New South Wales  HCA 58 due to an implied constitutional freedom of political communication, the restrictions on donations from property developers survived a 2015 High Court challenge in McCloy & Ors v State of New South Wales & Anor, partly on the grounds of an implied constitutional equality of political participation.
Electoral officers monitor the returns of candidates, parties and others and investigate possible breaches of the law. Proper monitoring of electoral finances is notoriously tricky and controversial. The Commonwealth Electoral Act has been amended a number of times since 1984 to deal with perceived loopholes in disclosure law. In recent years, ‘associated entities’ and third parties have become particularly hot issues. Labor and the Coalition have accused each other of hiding money by receiving benefits from organisations that have not made public their finances and sources of donations.
Questions for Discussion
Should the election expenditure of parties and candidates be subsidised by public funding?
Should there be limits to the amounts that candidates and parties are allowed to spend on election campaigns?
What are some of the key difficulties in making electoral finances as publicly tranparent as possible? Is it worth trying to achieve this goal?