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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Amid the stench of political donations, a whiff of reform

 Well in some places at least.

You may have missed the final report delivered to NSW Premier Baird on 24 December on options for long term reform of political donations by a panel chaired by Dr Kerry Schott.

By Martin Kingsley from Melbourne, Australia (Cashmoney) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
NSW already has the strictest election funding laws in Australia, but the report puts forward 50 recommendations for legislative change and a new more vigorous approach to implementation of the law and oversight by the regulator.

 Nicole Hasham in the Sydney Morning Herald said the report revealed 
"a political donations system riven with loopholes, weaknesses and corruption opportunities. ...The panel ... found "systemic failures" in laws that govern electoral funding disclosure, spending, caps and bans. It called for an immediate review. The archaic, paper-based system of delayed donation disclosures should be replaced by an online system where disclosures were made in real time, allowing meaningful scrutiny of potential relationships between donations and government decisions, the panel said.

No media release from the Premier accompanied publication but Hasham reports Premier Baird said "the government would consider the report and respond before the March election" adding that it "is understood that most recommendations will be supported."Nothing from Labor so far but NSW Greens welcomed most recommendations

NSW with an election on 28 March, ten Liberal members of parliament sidelined by the party because of revelations about breach of the donation rules as a result of revelations in ICAC last year, and Labor carrying the dead weight of former ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian McDonald, the integrity issue is unlikely to sink from sight in NSW as is the fate of most Christmas period releases. 

Some Schott recommendations are subject to the outcome and impact of a High Court decision later in the year in the McCloy case which is challenging an existing NSW prohibition on donations by developers.

That case has the potential to slow down national action on political donations also, something the Panel regards as essential for meaningful reform. (Alas the Federal government is yet to show a flicker of interest in this or anything else on the integrity front.)
As long as the rules governing political donations differ across Australia, there is a risk that any NSW law will be circumvented. The evidence brought to light by the ICAC in Operation Spicer shows how the lack of regulation of political donations at the federal level can be exploited to avoid the bans and caps on political donations that apply in New South Wales. We note that the Premier has recently introduced a new anti-circumvention provision targeted at those who deliberately seek to avoid the election finance laws, as recommended by the Panel in its Interim Report. The federal structure of some political parties creates opportunities for avoiding NSW restrictions on political donations. We believe that the Premier should support greater co-ordination of election funding laws across jurisdictions. A co-ordinated approach to disclosure would be a useful start. We recommend that the Premier seek to put the issue on the agenda at COAG. We also recommend that the Premier report to the NSW Parliament on progress against implementation of our recommendations, to ensure that the current momentum for change is maintained.
Labor and others are pushing integrity and accountability issues in the Queensland campaign leading to the election there on 31 January, just prior to this conference  on the subject in Brisbane on 9 February. Plenty of big donations are being accepted by the LNP Newman government from companies pushing controversial resource developments, caps on donations have been scrapped and disclosure thresholds increased twelvefold.

Unlike NSW and Queensland, Victoria does not regulate political donations and disclosure except for a cap of $50,000 on donations from casino proprietors. But on the good news side perhaps the Andrews government includes Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings listed third in the cabinet line up who will oversee government transparency, accountability, integrity and public sector administration and reform, supported by the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

In addition, the department portfolio now includes providing support in relation to the Auditor-General, the Commissioner for Privacy and Data Protection, the Freedom of Information Commissioner, the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission, the Local Government Investigations and Compliance Inspectorate, the Public Interest Monitor, the Victorian Electoral Commission, the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission, and the Victorian Inspectorate.

Political donations, lobbying, getting the BACC fit for purpose, and long overdue freedom of information reform have to be in there somewhere.

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