Successive Tasmanian governments may have carried out "indirect electoral bribery" through the mass-distribution of grants at election time but there's few regulations to stop them, an Integrity Commission report has found.
The commission is investigating ethical conduct and potential misconduct in Tasmanian elections, with the first paper - released on Monday - focusing on the practice of pork-barrelling.
The paper's first example focused on Labor government's 2010 campaign in which the Premier's Sundry Grant program, previously criticised by the Audit Office, saw its budget increase from $640,000 to $2.3 million in an election year.
The amount of grants distributed during the following two elections - 2014 and 2018, which the Liberals won - saw a significant jump in grants promised, at $7.3 million for 87 grants and then $8.8 million for 262 grants respectively.
The 2018 election commitments ranged from $900,000 for sporting facility upgrades in Kingston and $395,000 for Bridport and George Town RSL upgrades, and 54 grants of less than $10,000 across the state.
In the paper, University of Queensland electoral law researcher Professor Graeme Orr said the proliferation of small-scale grants at election time could come at the expense of good governance.
"The emerging pattern is of governments exercising fiscal rectitude in the first couple of years of the electoral cycle, with a view to amassing an electoral 'war-chest'," he said.
"Then, in the budget and related measures prior to the election, the government targets spending on electorally sensitive groups."
The Integrity Commission paper outlined how the use of small-scale commitments to small community groups has increased rapidly in Tasmania over the past two decades.
A lack of transparency around the decision-making and worthiness of these grants could pose "a significant threat to public confidence in government".
The Tasmanian Electoral Commission receives regular complaints about "electoral bribery" during campaigns with an increase noted since 2005.
They are assessed against the Tasmanian Electoral Act, which makes reference to electoral bribery but it has been rarely tested in case law, and where it has been, it would likely exclude "indirect electoral bribery" like small-scale grants.
The Integrity Commission found that there was very little scope for small-scale grants to be investigated in Tasmania.
"In practice the TEC has been hamstrung by a lack of specific powers and resources," the paper reads.
"Indirect electoral bribery, like traditional electoral bribery, is a serious issue that may threaten our democratic system.
"But it is not currently regulated, and it is rarely illegal. Whether and how this kind of conduct should be regulated, or even made contrary to law, is for the Tasmanian people and Parliament to decide."
Labor's Ella Haddad, the shadow attorney-general, said the paper "raises some very significant issues" and believes the Parliament should conduct an inquiry into how various reforms could be implemented.
"Elections should be fair and fought on a level playing field. It is clear that there is a lot of work needed to ensure that the community can have confidence Tasmania's electoral processes," she said.
A government spokesperson said it would consider the report "as per usual practice".
"Like every political party, we take into account a range of views when developing election policies. This includes getting out on the ground in local communities and hearing from them first-hand what they need to thrive into the future," they said.
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