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Expressing a view or affecting a vote?

3 min read

The 2010 election campaign may have been a big ‘yawn’ to many but the result, or more correctly the non-result, certainly invigorated new interest in democracy and government in Australia.

Our democracy thrives when there is widespread interest in politics and robust participation in elections from all sections of our community.

However, understanding what is and what is not political expenditure can be difficult at the best of times. It is important for not-for-profits to be aware of the reporting requirements under the electoral laws, as failure to lodge a return or retain records can attract significant penalties.

The lack of guidance from both the Federal Parliament and the courts on where to draw the line between the normal everyday expression of a view on an issue, and the expression of views that go to ‘affect voting in an election’, is especially problematic.

Participatory democracy

Australia prides itself on the integrity of its electoral system and the opportunity for all to participate in representative democracy.

However, in the political arena, there is a fear that third party individuals or groups will undermine the measures put in place to ensure accountability, integrity and transparency in the electoral system. It is these measures of accountability and transparency which deliver trust, confidence and reliability in our elections.

Not-for-profit voices

The active engagement by community groups across Australia gave lie to the belief that strict political expenditure disclosure requirements for third parties would act as a deterrent to the public expression of views.

Had this happened, it would have been to the detriment of Australian society and damaging to our democracy.

Not-for-profit (NFP) third parties are an important link between the community and government. They play a critical role in the democratic process by contributing to the public debate on specific issues and by advocating reform. They convey important information that would otherwise remain out of the public arena.

Political expenditure

Over the past century, third party individuals and organisations that are independent of political parties and candidates have increasingly had electoral expenditure disclosure requirements placed upon them.

The reasons given for broadening the reach of disclosure requirements was that further measures were said to be necessary to ensure accountability and transparency, in order to give voters all relevant information on the financing of campaigns.

Political expenditure is broadly defined, but relates to expressing an opinion or view on a candidate, party or an issue in an election. It includes:

  • Public expression of views on a political party, candidate in an election or member of the Federal Parliament
  • Public expression of views on an issue in an election
  • Printing, production, publication, or distribution of any material that is required to include a name, address or place of business
  • Broadcasting political matter
  • Opinion polling and research relating to the voting intention of the public.

Reporting requirements

Since 2006, third parties have been required to make an annual report to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), documenting their political expenditure.

Currently, individuals and organisations that incur ‘political expenditure’ above the disclosure threshold are required to lodge an annual return with the AEC by
17 November in each year.

This report must document total political expenditure and identify the value and source of donations used to fund the political expenditure.

If your organisation was involved in a campaign or strategy expressing a view during the recent federal election campaign, you should check to see if the reporting requirements apply to your organisation.

Recommended procedures

The AEC recommends that third parties should consider the financial recording systems and procedures necessary to enable the return forms to be completed properly.

This would mean:

  • Documenting and recording all transactions
  • Including a donations register
  • Retaining all relevant receipts and invoices
  • Keeping records for three years
  • Checking the reporting requirements for particular states and territories.

More information

The best advice is to consult the AEC’s funding and disclosure guide at

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