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Victorian rules on donations, lobbying and political advertising need an overhaul, report says

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Center for Public Integrity says payments at fundraising events were captured, but not attendance fees

The Victorian government is urged to strengthen its rules on political donations, election advertising and lobbying ahead of the November election.

The Center for Public Integrity on Friday released a discussion paper titled Integrity Inadequacies: Victory, detailing how the state’s frameworks are falling short compared to other jurisdictions.

He said that despite substantial improvements to Victoria’s gift laws introduced in 2018, which require gifts over $1,050 to be disclosed and capped at $4,210 over four years, the definition is too narrow.

Catherine Williams, research director for the Center for Public Integrity, said payments made at fundraising events were included in the definition of a political donation, but attendance fees were not.

“For example, there may be a dinner where a parliamentarian is the headliner and it costs thousands of dollars to attend, but we know that hosting that dinner doesn’t cost thousands of dollars,” Williams said.

“The difference between the cost of holding the event and the fee must be explicitly captured as a donation. That’s how they do it in New South Wales.”

Victoria’s political donation laws also excluded gifts between registered parties and their “nominated entities”, Williams said.

Related: AEC finds errors in donation records from across the political spectrum

The independent think tank is also calling on the government to introduce a cap on election spending, as is the case in New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

The Victorian government has promised to review the issue, but that won’t happen until after the November 26 election.

“We need to level the playing field relative to the election,” Williams said. “We need to make sure that candidates’ ability to access the electorate is not directly proportional to their resources. The only way to do this is through the imposition of spending caps.

“This would also have the benefit of reducing reliance on donations.”

The state’s lobbying framework was also described as “weak” in the report.

In Victoria, ministers and cabinet secretaries can take up lobbying after 18 months of leaving parliament, while parliamentary secretaries, executives and staff can do so after 12 months. But this rule only applies to those who meet the definition of “Director of Government Affairs.”

Meanwhile, the only penalty lobbyists face for going easy is deregistration, while other states impose fines and others can prosecute.

Ministerial diaries, which show who they have met, are not published in Victoria, and if a minister is found to have breached their code of conduct, it is a matter for the prime minister to enforce.

“It’s the same at the federal level, where the code of conduct can only be enforced by the prime minister,” Williams said. “But of course what Prime Minister or Prime Minister would have an interest in codifying a ministerial code if that would result in drawing attention to the misdeeds of members of his government?”

Williams said Victoria’s Broad-Based Independent Anti-Corruption Commission has much more limited jurisdiction than its counterpart in New South Wales, which has broad powers to investigate any allegations of suspected corruption.

This includes alleged material breaches of ministerial and MP codes of conduct.

“That is why Gladys Berejiklian ended up before the Icac, it was due to a complaint of substantial breach of the ministerial code. That couldn’t happen in Victoria,” she said.

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