Senator Andrew Bragg has asked the Australian Electoral Commission to investigate Northern Beaches political action groups.

Senator Bragg says the ‘Voices of’ groups have an agenda to unseat Coalition members of parliament, with Voices of Warringah widely credited with boosting Zali Steggall’s campaign to defeat former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

According to Senator Bragg, the political action groups should play by the same rules as established political organisations and be subject to the same transparency and oversight.

Andrew Bragg

Andrew Bragg

“I have written to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) asking it to investigate 40 groups set up almost exclusively in electorates represented by the Government. In a democracy like Australia, it is critical that people can find out who is behind candidates for public office and where their funding is sourced.

“We have laws to ensure these disclosures are made to electors. I am concerned these laws are not being followed. The ‘Voices of’ or ‘Voices for’ groups maintain a veneer of being unaligned community groups but are unmistakably political, they intend to unseat Government MPs at the next election.

“Unlike proclaimed political groups, ‘Voices of’ are not held to the same standards of transparency. Under electoral laws, websites, social media and other material needs to carry a message of authorisation, but many of these groups fail to do that.

“Some have donation portals which have raised tens of thousands of dollars but their donors, many of whom remain completely anonymous, aren’t forced to disclose whether they are foreigners. The AEC needs to investigate whether these groups are being transparent with their funding. The groups need to provide disclosures to the AEC if their expenditure exceeds the disclosure threshold.

“Australians deserve to know who candidates for federal office are and exactly who is funding them. Our laws demand it and they must be enforced,” said Senator Bragg.

Federal Member for Warringah Zali Steggall OAM offered a defence of the political action groups springing up in Coalition electorates, saying they were not needed in Labor seats where voters could turn to the Greens.

Zali Steggall

Zali Steggall

“The reason ‘Voices of’ groups are growing in Liberal held seats is that many in the community don’t feel like the Liberal/National Party offer a sensible voice for moderates. Unlike Labor seats, where disaffected voters can turn to the Greens, there is no option like that for disaffected voters in conservative seats,” said Ms Steggall.

President of Voices of Warringah Kathryn Ridge, who stood as an Independent candidate in the 2017 Manly by-election, dismissed Senator Bragg’s claims, saying Voices of Warringah complied with electoral laws.

Kathryn Ridge

Kathryn Ridge

“Voices of Warringah is not currently taking donations but when we did at the last election, we required a positive declaration from donors to confirm their Australian residency and also complied with the NSW laws on prohibited donors (no property developers, gambling, tobacco and alcohol).

“Our website is also clearly labelled with a political authorisation. We are confident we fully comply and I note Senator Bragg was careful not to mention us in his statement,” said Ms Ridge.

The opening salvo was fired two weeks ago by Federal Member for Mackellar Jason Falinski who declined to attend a Voices of Mackellar event on climate change, which was attended by Ms Steggall.

At the time, Mr Falinski declared the event to be a political rally and said it would have been inappropriate to attend.

Jason Falinski

Jason Falinski

“Groups such as Voices of Mackellar, Mackellar Rising, Your Northern Beaches, yourvotematters, the New Liberals, are left wing front groups that have continued to play politics in the middle of a lockdown.

“I have reluctantly concluded that by any reasonable measure this group is not a community group, they are the next chapter in the book of GetUp! If these groups were running a company, and not a political party, the ACCC would have grounds to prosecute them for false and misleading advertising,” said Mr Falinski.

Voices of Mackellar President Leonie Scarlett denied the group was established to be a stalking horse for an Independent candidate.

Leonie Scarlett

Leonie Scarlett

“Voices of Mackellar understands why Senator Bragg and some journalists are confused about the role of Voices of Mackellar in our community. While some ‘Voices of’ organisations have backed Independent candidates at previous elections, that is not what Voices of Mackellar has been established to do.

“As we have set out clearly in our charter, Voices of Mackellar aims ‘to act as a conduit between members of the Mackellar Community and our Elected Representatives’. It doesn’t matter what party our MP represents, our aim is create an open dialogue between the community and our elected representatives.

“While there has been some confusion in recent media reports, we are pleased to be meeting with our MP, Jason Falinski, in the coming weeks. This will give us the chance to present the findings of our ‘Mackellar Matters Report’ to him in person and to discuss what we have heard during our conversations with 430 Mackellar locals. We are looking forward to a positive relationship with Mr Falinski in the future,” said Ms Scarlett.

Ms Scarlett defended Voices of Mackellar as non-partisan and said electoral laws did not apply to the group.

“In response to Senator Bragg’s calls for funding transparency under Australian electoral laws, Voices of Mackellar do not and will not back any candidate at a future election, nor is it our goal to ‘unseat’ an MP.

“Voices of Mackellar is not a political party, nor aligned to one. However, we hope our communication and engagement with candidates in Mackellar can create better outcomes for our community, as through our activity all candidates will know what local residents are thinking on important topics.

“The electoral funding disclosure laws Senator Bragg refers to clearly don’t apply to Voices of Mackellar. Given we are a volunteer organisation, the donations we receive from the community are used to host events such as our recent Climate Leadership online forum, develop leaflets to promote our work and to develop the Mackellar Matters Report.

“Given Senator Bragg is also representing the people of Mackellar as a Senator for NSW, I extend an invitation for him to meet us, just as Mr Falinski is doing, so he can be better informed about what we do and to learn about the real concerns of his constituents, the voters of Mackellar.

“We also call on Senator Bragg to now stop spreading misinformation about the role Voices of Mackellar is playing in our community,” said Ms Scarlett.

Senator Bragg appeared unmoved, saying groups that are clearly political need to play by the rules and be transparent.

“Australians deserve to know who is standing behind political candidates and who their donors are. Even a quick glance at the public facing websites or social media pages of some of these groups reveals a lack of compliance with the law. Voices of Mackellar has no authorisation on its website.

“While they’re not being transparent about their key people and donors, they are being overt in their anti-Liberal messaging. It is unclear how many unauthorised materials are circulating within the Northern Beaches.

“With an election due next year, it’s important that we get on top of lawlessness so that everyone can access the key facts about candidates. Sunshine is the best form of disinfectant,” said Senator Bragg.

Image: Northern Beaches Advocate

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