Management of campaign donation returns
In 2020, the new Act was passed. It was the largest reform of the laws governing local government in three decades. The Local Government Bill 2019 (Bill) which was initially drafted included a proposal to increase the responsibilities of the Chief Municipal Inspector (CMI) in relation to campaign donation returns. The proposal would have seen the CMI publish a summary of the gifts recorded in an election donation report within two days of it being lodged. The summary would have included the name of the candidate, name of the donor and the value and nature of the gift.
The immediacy of this proposal would have heightened transparency in local government and the election process. It also received strong support from the local government sector. However, the proposal set out in section 338 of the Bill was not passed by the Victorian Parliament and did not become law.18
It is our belief that the section needs to be included in the Act to increase the transparency and integrity of political donations in local government elections and this will increase public trust in the process.
The Act should be amended to include language consistent with clause 338 of the Local Government Bill 2019 to streamline the submission of campaign donation returns and improve transparency.
The Local Government Inspectorate should be resourced to adequately manage and scrutinise the campaign donation returns process.
Part 8 of the Act includes a number of offences relating to the conduct of elections, including matters relating to the authorisation, publication and distribution of election material (sections 287, 289, 290, 291 of the Act), as well as offences related to the requirement to submit campaign donation returns (section 306). These are aimed primarily at ensuring that local government elections are conducted in accordance with the legislation and as transparently as possible.
These offences are relatively minor and most carry relatively low financial penalties. Apart from a potential jail term of six months for offences under section 291, they do not carry the possibility of imprisonment. They are ‘strict liability’ offences; that is, a candidate does not have to intend to commit these offences in order to be guilty; it is only necessary to prove that the accused engaged in the proscribed activity.
Our experience under the equivalent provisions in the 1989 Act indicates that the use of the criminal justice system is a particularly blunt instrument for ensuring compliance with these regulatory provisions. The cost and delay in conducting prosecutions in the court system are disproportionate to the nature and seriousness of the offences.
In addition, we consider that the criminal justice system does not provide an adequate deterrent for candidates who breach their statutory obligations under Part 8 of the Act (either carelessly or deliberately) and that there is a pressing need to amend the Act to allow the CMI to issue infringement notices to persons believed to have committed these offences.
We have previously presented these proposed amendments to the Department of Justice and Community Safety.
The Act should be amended to give the CMI specific power to issue infringement notices.
18. The full clause 338 is listed in Appendix 2.