Jim Molan's 2019 campaign raised $43,000 from online crowdfunding sites

Christopher Knaus
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Returning Liberal senator Jim Molan’s re-election campaign was bankrolled with $43,000 from opaque third-party crowdfunding websites, prompting concerns about their use as political fundraising vehicles.

Molan ran what many viewed as a rogue campaign in the lead-up to the 2019 election, after his party reduced him to an unwinnable spot on its ticket.

Molan’s campaign took the unusual step of raising campaign funds via online crowdfunding sites, outside of more standard Liberal fundraising processes.

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Molan himself opened a fundraising page on MyCause, through which he received $10,417 from 81 donations, most of which were small donations of less than $100.

A separate fundraising page was opened on GoFundMe by John Crawford, an ally of Molan’s, who said the funds would be used for the “purchasing of signs, T-shirts, how-to-vote cards and advertising” to support Molan’s re-election.

The GoFundMe page lists $32,665 donations from 104 donors, including one $10,000 donation from an anonymous source.

Molan said he had no control over that page and did not receive the funds from it directly. He has not declared the GoFundMe donations to the electoral commission in his individual candidate disclosure.

The use of crowdfunding sites as fundraising vehicles has prompted concern among integrity experts because of the relatively lax way they treat the identity of donors.

On MyCause, for example, it is possible to use a false name and an anonymised email address to make a donation, with no need to enter a physical street address or other identifying information.

The recipient of the donation will only see the name, anonymised email, and the amount donated. By contrast, donating to the Liberal party online requires a name, phone number and physical address, which can be cross-checked against the electoral roll to verify a donor’s identity.

Grattan Institute researcher Kate Griffiths said crowdfunding websites made it difficult to ascertain the true identity of donors.

“Candidates and parties can’t be sure of the source of their donations when using these types of fundraising methods,” Griffiths told the Guardian.

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New laws were introduced prior to the May 2019 election to ban donations from foreign donors.

Both crowdfunding websites associated with Molan’s campaign advise potential donors they must comply with the foreign donation laws.

But it is unclear how precisely the organisers of the crowdfunding websites could have ensured they were not receiving money from those outside Australia.

Griffiths says the current rules are flawed because they effectively put the onus on the donor to declare whether or not they are “foreign”.

“It is very difficult to identify and prevent foreign donations, so a better system would provide greater transparency of major donors (whoever they are) and limit political spending during election campaigns to reduce the influence of any donation,” she said.

Molan said he was only accountable for the MyCause website, which had only received small donations from a large number of donors.

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“That website raised $10,417 from 81 donations; 19 of 81 were anonymous, for a total of $1,930 of $10,417,” he said.

“Anyone can open that website and look at the figures; and all except three were $100 or below, and the three larger ones were single donations of a $500 and two of $200.”

Molan has already lodged his donation disclosure return for the campaign with the Australian Electoral Commission. His disclosure only records him receiving $11,243, and does not include the money raised via GoFundMe.

Molan said he did not have to declare the money donated to the GoFundMe page because it was run by John Crawford, and he did not receive any of the money directly.

The Liberal party also suggested disclosure of the money was not its responsibility.

“Third-party campaigners’ electoral disclosure obligations are a matter for them,” a spokesman said.

Australia’s weak donation laws will hide the identities of the GoFundMe and MyCause donors from the public regardless.

Candidates and parties were only compelled to disclose donations of above $13,800 to the public at the time of the election, and all the contributions on the crowdfunding sites remained below that threshold.

“Australia’s donations rules are full of holes: the donations disclosure threshold is too high and it is all too easy to split donations or hide donations from banned donors,” Griffiths said.

“Parliament should improve the visibility of political donations by lowering the donations disclosure threshold to $5,000, requiring political parties to aggregate multiple donations from the same donor, and requiring more timely release of donations information.”

Griffiths said the best way to limit the influence of money in politics is by limiting campaign expenditure, therefore reducing the value of donations and influence of the donor.

Molan’s bid for re-election at the May election was unsuccessful. But he has since been pre-selected to replace the outgoing Arthur Sinodinos, who has been appointed the next Australian ambassador to the United States.