Image: Senator Andrew Bragg, left, and Dave Sharma, right, have launched a series of complaints against the transparency site They Vote for You. CREDIT:ALEX ELLINGHAUSEN
MPs call for ‘partisan’ political transparency site to lose charity status
By Nick Bonyhady and Rob Harris
A website that tracks MPs’ voting records has become the subject of complaints to the charity regulator from government members who believe it is distorting their positions on totemic issues from marriage equality to climate change and Indigenous recognition.
NSW Liberal senator Andrew Bragg and MP Dave Sharma, who represents the seat of Wentworth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, have written to regulators including the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission arguing the site “They Vote for You” is biased and should be stripped of its charitable status.
“Its primary purpose is to provide curated content and present information in a highly partial, polemical and partisan light,” Senator Bragg wrote in a letter last month seen by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
He said the site’s actions were incompatible with its duties as a charity not to promote or oppose candidates for political office and, along with Mr Sharma, said he was considering legal options. “I will not put up with it,” Senator Bragg said.
In an example cited in his letter, Senator Bragg is listed on theyvoteforyou.org.au as voting against protections for LGBT Australians and a constitutional Indigenous Voice to Parliament despite leading a campaign in the Coalition to legalise gay marriage and authoring a book backing the Voice.
Matthew Landauer, a co-founder and director of the OpenAustralia Foundation that runs They Vote For You, denied the site was partisan in any way, saying its purpose was to make sure people could reconcile politicians’ rhetoric with their votes.
“We’re not in any shape or form biased towards one political party or another,” Dr Landauer said. “We do our absolute best to make what’s visible on the site as true and accurate reflection of the real votes and the voting intentions of those politicians.”
He said They Vote for You did its best to describe each vote accurately, was open about its methodology, and had previously fixed errors when MPs had found problems. Dr Landauer invited any MPs who felt aggrieved to engage with the site but said none had done so for years. The charity regulator had not been in touch either, he said.
In a reply to Senator Bragg’s letter last month, the ACNC said his complaint had been sent to its compliance division for “review and consideration” but could not provide any future updates because of secrecy rules.
A spokeswoman for the regulator said she could not discuss individual charities but said the ACNC was an independent organisation that took complaints from anyone and decided on its own what to investigate.
“We work with charities to help them get back on track by providing guidance, regulatory advice or entering into undertakings,” the spokeswoman said. “However, where serious breaches have occurred and a charity is not willing or able to adequately address the ACNC’s concerns, we will revoke the charity’s registration.“
The vote that underpins the site’s claim that Senator Bragg is opposed to an Indigenous Voice to Parliament was a 2019 Senate motion calling on the Prime Minister to accept message sticks from an Indigenous man advocating for a Voice.
Senator Bragg voted against the motion, which was only a symbolic gesture, but it is nonetheless characterised by They Vote For You as a “very strong vote”.
The government has committed to legislating an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, which would give First Nations people a say on issues that affect them, but not enshrining it in the constitution as the Uluru Statement from the Heart called for in 2017.
In another example, Mr Sharma said Coalition MPs were described as having voted “very strongly against a fast transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy” in part on the basis of rejecting a symbolic Labor motion that criticised the government without changing the law.
”This is a straightforward exercise in naked partisanship … disguised as a civic-minded attempt at transparency,” Mr Sharma said in a letter to the AEC asking it to force the group to authorise its posts as political messages.
The Australian Electoral Commission told Mr Sharma it would not investigate his complaint in October because They Vote For You’s communications did not appear designed to influence elections and therefore were outside the commission’s domain.
Dr Landauer acknowledged that They Vote for You was constrained to recording only MPs’ formal votes and that MPs could be wedged by motions that supported good aims but also criticised their parties or proposed controversial solutions.
But, Dr Landauer said, politicians also sometimes voted against their stated positions when their parties demanded it.
“It’s very easy for an MP to misrepresent reality because they say a certain thing but then they vote a completely different way,” he said.
Google, which contributed startup funding to the site when it launched several years ago, distanced itself. “Google does not have an ongoing partnership with this website and has had no involvement with the organisation for more than five years,” a spokesman said.