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Estimates: Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee (political donations)

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 9 Feb 2016

Mr Rogers, Electoral Commissioner, and Mr Pirani, AEC Chief Legal Officer, respond to questioning from Lee regarding the new use of the term "subscription" in the context of political donations.  The AEC is also called on to explain why additional information about an individual donor's commercial interests cannot be included in the disclosure form.

CHAIR: I welcome Mr Tom Rogers, the Electoral Commissioner, and officers of the Australian Electoral Commission. Mr Rogers, do you wish to make an opening statement?

Mr Rogers: No, I don't, thank you.

Senator RHIANNON: We have just had 1 February, our big day of the year, when we learn about donations over the previous financial year. I notice that there was a new term used: 'subscription to a political party'. Has that term been used before?

Mr Rogers: I am not sure whether we used that term before. I might just ask Mr Pirani to see whether in fact that is a new term or one that has changed. To my mind, that is not something we have discussed as using a new term.

Mr Pirani: I am unclear about what the context is when you say 'we' have used a new term.

Senator RHIANNON: Good point. When you look at the disclosure, I only saw it for Labor's. In Labor's disclosure they listed a number of donations as 'subscription', and I have never seen that term before. I have seen the term 'donation' and I have seen the term 'other receipt' but not-

Mr Pirani: The definition of 'gift' in section 287(1) of the Electoral Act at paragraph (b) does not include an annual subscription paid to a political party, to a state branch or to a division. So the definition of 'gift'-which loosely, in the forms that they fill out, equates to a donation-does not include subscription. So all I can assume is that the Labor Party has chosen to put subscriptions in as a means of some form of additional disclosure. But it is not a gift; therefore, it is not a donation as defined in the Electoral Act.

Senator RHIANNON: Has it been used before?

Mr Pirani: I am not aware of that. I would have to go back and look through all the returns.

Mr Rogers: We will take that on notice because we do not know the answer to that today.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take it on answer and give a full answer. Did you give Labor advice that they could use that term? Once you received their disclosure and you saw the term, did you then question Labor about what it means?

Mr Rogers: I am not sure; we will have to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: I understand that. I have 11 donations here and over half a million dollars in subscriptions, and the word 'subscriptions' was, for example, used with: '$66,000 from ClubsNSW' or '$110,000 from Woodside Energy'. I think we have a broad idea what the word 'subscriptions' means. Do you question what it means in terms of a political donation disclosure?

Mr Rogers: I think there are two questions there. If you are asking, 'Did we?' I shall take that on notice because I am unsure about whether we have done that or not. The second part of the question is: would we consider that something that we would ask a question about? Not necessarily. The parties submit their disclosure returns. It is an annual process. Clearly, where we see something that is in error we might ask questions about the error and we might probe further, but just because there is a particular use of a term it does not automatically mean we would probe that. But I will ask my funding and disclosure staff whether or not we asked Labor any questions about that.

Senator RHIANNON: Did you ask the companies if they viewed it as a subscription?

Mr Rogers: I will take that on notice, but I will almost guarantee that we did not check with the companies. We look at the donor returns. We try and match the donor returns with the party returns. Mr Pirani might have a different view here, but we would not normally contact the donors over the use of particular nomenclature or terminology.

Mr Pirani: Without knowing the specifics of the particular use of the word 'subscription', it does raise the issue about fundraising events et cetera when people buy a table. Quite often, we get a discrepancy between what the party has reported and what the donor reported, because they do not have a meeting of minds as to what the purpose of the expenditure was. In those cases, we have asked questions-particularly when we do a compliance review of the actual returns of the political parties.

Senator RHIANNON: I appreciate that you have to take it on notice, but from the answer that you have given it appears that you think they have used the term 'subscriptions' because it is not a gift. Does that mean when another party fills out its-

Mr Rogers: We are now speculating about what the ALP may or may not have done, and I am very uncomfortable with that. I would prefer to take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Okay, fair enough. We now have this new term. If another political party put down that it received money as raffle tickets, that is not a gift, it is not a donation and it is not a subscription-it is raffle tickets. Would you accept that? What is your internal process in terms of how you handle these disclosure forms when they come forward, with parties now using new ways to describe money that they receive?

CHAIR: Can I just jump in on this. Wasn't there a precedent in regard to raffle tickets, with Nick Bolkus selling raffle tickets all to one individual, or something?

Senator LUDWIG: Yes.

CHAIR: I think that was true.

Senator LUDWIG: Yes. I think he won the defamation case.

CHAIR: This is not on defamation; I am just asking if there is a precedent about selling raffle tickets to one person.

Senator LUDWIG: I am just pointing out that he might have won the defamation case.

Mr Rogers: This is moving into difficult areas. I am not sure exactly of the incident that you are referring to. Mr Pirani, I don't think, is either. So I think I would prefer to take that question on notice.

CHAIR: I will not mention it outside of privilege!

Senator RHIANNON: So that and the terminology-both of the questions that we put on notice, about the issue of terminology and also how you handle these disclosures when they arrive. We have political parties now describing it in ways that we were not aware could be done. Just staying with disclosure, I did want to ask about the forms. At the moment, my recollection is that on the forms you require the mobile number, an email and a postal address. Is that correct?

Mr Pirani: We require a telephone number, a fax number and an email address.

Senator RHIANNON: No street address?

Mr Pirani: Sorry-postal address.

Senator RHIANNON: Yes. It is down there as a mobile number, isn't it?

Mr Pirani: Not on the form that I have in front of me which is a 2014-15 return. There is no mobile phone number.

Senator RHIANNON: But my point is: you have email there. I imagine that 10 years ago you may not have had an email address down there, so, clearly, the AEC would be responsible and update forms as means of communication change. My question is: as this is to provide information about the disclosure donor, have you considered including in that that the donor identifies their major commercial interest if they are an individual and any position they might have?

Mr Rogers: No. I can answer that: we have not considered that. That would be a policy matter that would have some implications, I suspect, for particular donors who may decide to then alter their pattern of donation to the parties. I am sure that the parliament would have views on that beyond just the AEC introducing administrative change.

Senator RHIANNON: Why do you say that is a policy matter when you are obtaining information that you have varied in the form over the years-you ask where a person lives and who they are, et cetera? Isn't that within the course of the information one would require to have a disclosure form?

Mr Rogers: I do not think so. We might have to disagree on this one. The amendments to the form that we may or may not have had are simply about identity-about telephone number and address-rather than purpose or commercial activity, which I think, potentially, might have a chilling effect on the activities of donors. That would be a matter for parliament rather than for me, I think.

Senator RHIANNON: Chair, could you go to somebody else, and then I could come back?

CHAIR: I will, Senator Rhiannon. Just for the benefit of the committee, we do have a hard marker at 12.30, because the minister has to be somewhere else. So we have to share this around a little bit. I am going to go to Senator Smith, then to Senator McAllister and then back to the Greens.


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