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Tuesday, February 02, 2016

What's holding back political donation law reform and full transparency?

A selection of editorial opinion follows.

Contrast these sentiments with the absence of any sign of interest in reform from the Federal Government and the observation by Gary Gray, Shadow Special Minister of State on Sunday in conversation with Jonathon Green on Radio National that Australia has the best system of disclosures in the world. 

Yes, truly.

Crikey Editorial 1 February
Every year we go through the same shabby ritual: up to 19 months after some of them have been made, we finally learn who is trying to curry favour with our political parties with donations.

Or rather, we learn about some of the donors. Courtesy of donation disclosure laws that are a relic of the Howard era, parties and donors are not required to disclose donations of under $13,000 (although to its credit the ALP has consistently reported all donations over $1000, as the Greens now do as well). Moreover, there are huge loopholes in the definition of donations. For example, “purchasing” a good or service from a political party, such as a seat at a dinner table with a minister, is not considered a donation.

The entire reporting system is woefully out of date. We should have online, near-real time reporting of donations by federal, state and territory branches of political parties. Instead, we are required to wait until February 2016 to find out who was donating to politicians as long ago as July 2014.

Most of all, there is little penalty for late disclosure. Political parties routinely get away with declaring hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations years later, long after anyone has stopped scrutinising them. Bill Shorten's convenient failure to declare an in-kind donation from a company to his 2007 election campaign is just the tip of the iceberg.

Every year, Crikey makes the same editorial call: our analog-era joke of a disclosure regime needs to be overhauled. But there is little political will within the major parties for greater transparency. The last politician to seriously attempt reform was John Faulkner under Kevin Rudd. To its shame, the Coalition thwarted his efforts. Since then, both sides have treated voters with contempt.

SMH Editorial 2 February
As the Herald has argued many times, Australia needs to stop the gaming of Upper House election preferences, apply stricter limits to political funding and demand full transparency, including continuous real-time disclosure of donations...
...the source of most Liberal funding from big business and wealthy donors remains secret due to outdated rules and the $13,000 federal disclosure threshold. Labor donations as small as $1000 are mostly disclosed but remain entwined in union coffers....
Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison labelled as "very shabby" the donations from Palmer interests. The Liberal heavyweight  warned voters that if something in politics looked too good to be true it probably was. But Labor and the Coalition have repeatedly derailed attempts to fix the system.
To his credit, NSW Premier Mike Baird has toughened the state electoral funding laws and is rightly pushing for reforms across other state and the federal jurisdiction. The Herald has argued for lower limits on political donations from individuals and organisations; the continuous real-time reporting at which Mr Baird has baulked, limiting it instead to six months before an election; a ban on associated entities; and clear definitions about where the money comes from and goes. Extra options include a ban on political donations from foreign sources, spending caps for parties and third-party supporters, and more public funding to reduce reliance on donors.
Voters should demand change from the major parties and support reformers who reject the current sordid arrangements. The likes of senators John Madigan, Nick Xenophon and the Greens have proposed new rules for donations and Upper House elections. Some in Labor, including former minister of state John Faulkner, proposed changes to donations rules only to have them kyboshed.

Those who argue, in the face of all evidence, that Australia's political donations disclosure laws are robust are fooling themselves and voters. That goes for every level of government – federal, state and local council – and every political party and opportunist that feeds off this woeful regime.
The arrangements for disclosing political donations are disjointed, varying from one jurisdiction to another. The delays in publishing donation details are so lengthy that the whole process becomes almost pointless. And the threshold for disclosing donations ($12,800 in 2014-15) is too high, leaving the system vulnerable to exploitation.
Why does this matter? Because the transparent and timely disclosure of political donations helps to inform voters about the sources of potential influence on a government. It is intended to allay the risk of undue, secret or corrupting influences by exposing who is behind campaigns. It helps to preserve and protect the integrity of the electoral process, and is a form of insurance on government decisions.....
The Age has said for decades that the existing system is flawed. So, too, have commissions of inquiry, joint parliamentary committees at both federal and state levels. At the federal level, the Coalition has repeatedly opposed or sought to weaken proposed disclosure reforms. In Victoria, there has been no sign the Andrews government plans any change.
All parties are dragging their feet on reform, leaving voters with a lame system that is open to rorting. What is needed is a first-class, uniform and transparent electoral disclosure regime, one that includes online access to donations in local council elections and which has rigorous requirements to ensure full disclosures by the umbrella foundations and other cloaked organisations favoured by the major political parties.
Importantly, publication must be timely. The current laws do not require donors to submit returns until 20 weeks after the close of the financial year. There is no sensible reason for this lax deadline. The 2014-15 returns for political parties were published yesterday, meaning some of the information was more than 18 months old. The technology exists for real-time (or near-enough) lodgement and disclosure. The law must be changed to speed this up.
It is time to stop ducking and weaving on this important integrity issue. Politicians and parties that refuse to support reforms towards transparency, efficient and timely disclosure must be condemned.

Crikey Editorial 2 February:
The Coalition’s long war on transparency continues in the government’s childish games with an allegedly sensitive confidential volume of the trade union royal commission report.

The government has had three separate positions on the volume: first it was to remain confidential on the basis that royal commissioner (and would-be Liberal Party speech maker) Dyson Heydon claimed (without providing any evidence) that releasing it might place royal commission witnesses in danger. When crossbench senators whose votes are necessary for the government to pass its anti-CFMEU bill re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission demanded access, the government changed its mind and offered access to a redacted version of the report. Yesterday it changed its position again and offered access to a single representative of the Greens and Labor as well -- an offer that has correctly been declined on the basis of arrant silliness.

Since its election in 2013, the Coalition has consistently tried to curb transparency. Entire areas of government operations have been ruled beyond the scope of parliamentary scrutiny. Ministers have misled Parliament with impunity. The public service has been encouraged to treat freedom of information laws with contempt. Whistleblowers have been pursued and journalists threatened with jail.

It was to be hoped that Malcolm Turnbull, a man who made his legal reputation on one of the signal moments of transparency in Australian law, the Spycatcher case, would bring a change from the Abbott government’s deep-seated loathing of transparency. So far, the signs are that we’re in for more of the same.

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