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Speech: Donations to Political Parties

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 2 Feb 2016

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:43): It is time to end the farce of 1 February, which is the Australian Electoral Commission political donation disclosure day. I am not blaming the AEC. It is the law that is an ass when it comes to how our political donations are disclosed. This is not a day of transparency; it is actually a day when we are reminded how urgently we need electoral funding reform.

It really is a farce. If you were given a donation on 1 July 2014, it would have been disclosed yesterday, 19 months later. That is not transparency. We understand many people-possibly the majority of donations-come in under $13,000. Thanks to the law change under former Prime Minister John Howard, none of those donations have to be fully disclosed. I think it was Mr Ruddock, a Liberal MP in the lower house, who said it is a matter of privacy. 'These people have a right to give their money, and their details shouldn't be disclosed.' Again, it is a way to cover it up. Now, come 1 February, the cover-up is extreme. It is not a day of transparency at all.

We do need that reform in detail. Australia's arcane reporting rules and methods disguise millions of dollars which influence political parties and, I would argue, do interfere with the democratic process. Here are just a few examples of the lack of transparency. Buried on page 37 of Labor's disclosure is a payment of $110,000 from Woodside Energy. If you actually search for this as a donation on the AEC's website, it will not appear. Maybe you do not think that is surprising-I have already said transparency comes a poor second in this case-but you would think that, on 1 February, if it is about political donations, you would be able to find it. But the ALP have come up with a new category, which they are able to do. They are calling this a subscription, not a donation.

What sort of subscription costs $110,000? But it was not just Woodside Energy, which was listed as a $110,000 subscription. There were many others. I will just name a few. Clubs New South Wales apparently paid the ALP a subscription of $66,000. Santos paid a subscription of $27,500. Coca-Cola Amatil paid $27,500. What is the purpose? Why were these titles used?

I think one of the best ways to analyse this data is by looking at it in terms of the very important October High Court case on political donations that came down last year. This was a High Court case that came about from some of the scandals that ran amuck in New South Wales. I have spoken about it before and again urge Senators to look at it. This High Court case describes two forms of corruption in terms of how political donations are given. One they called quid pro quo corruption, the other the more subtle kind of corruption known as clientelism. On the quid pro quo corruption I will share with you a stand-out example of how they described that. This is a summary of what they said, not their description. It is where money is handed over for a very specific outcome to approve a specific development, maybe ignore an illegal betting syndicate, release a well-connected mate or help dodge an unfavourable environmental assessment.

Here is a donation. The owner of the Iwasaki resort, which is a proposed $600 million expansion of the Mercure Capricorn Resort Yeppoon, gave $55,000 to the Queensland LNP. Around the same time, they were waiting for the federal Department of the Environment to assess any national environmental impacts. Again, they do not know if there is any connection, but you can certainly understand why people become very cynical about how this works. And maybe it is an example of quid pro quo corruption.

As I mentioned, the other form of corruption that the High Court spoke about is a more subtle kind of corruption known as clientelism. This is how the High Court describes it. It is where:

... office holders will decide issues not on the merits or desires of constituents, but according to the wishes of those that have made large financial contributions valued by the office holder ...
I think this is where you do see the value of 1 February data. It is very frustrating that it comes in so late and you certainly do not know about it before elections, but we do get some data here, and I think this is where you can join the dots with what the High Court is saying.

Let's look at some of the trends in the donations. The property and construction industry gave about $1.5 million. Remember we are just talking about the financial year 2014-2015. Roslyn Packer donated $100,000 to the federal Liberal Party. Santos Ltd donated just over $82,000 to federal Labor and just over $48,000 to the federal Liberals. The Australian Hotels Association is always a good regular. You can rely on them, usually for big donations: $180,000 to the Liberal Party and $150,000 to the ALP. Village Roadshow donated $176,000 to the Liberals, $12,800 to Labor and the trend goes on. You might ask: what is the connection? I talked about a more subtle kind of corruption. I would argue the standout example here is developer donations but we also see the same trend with the gambling industry, with the mining industry and with the alcohol industry where we have seen the weakening of laws that put restrictions on those industries to some extent. A weakening of the laws means those companies make more profits. The examples are there and we can document them very clearly.

It is time for electoral reform. It is certainly time to end the farce of February 1. It is not a day of transparency. We need to get the disclosure bar down to $1,000. We need to have real-time or near real-time disclosure so the public know where the money is coming from, and those reforms should be in place before the coming in election. But we also need to go further. We need to put limits on the millions of dollars that are coming into the whole political game, particularly coming into an election. I find those millions of dollars make that public deeply cynical. They do not want more attack ads on the television. They do not want more colour glossy leaflets shoved in their letterbox. I do believe we could restore confidence in how we operate and how the whole political process operates if there was less money sloshing around come election time and we had some real debate about our election platforms-that would be healthier.

So we need tight caps on political donations. The Greens would argue we need an end to for-profit corporate donations but we certainly need strict caps on election expenditure. Those measures, with transparency changes that really tighten up the current process and make it accessible for the public to learn where the money comes from and where it is going, would go a long way towards making Australia's democracy much more healthy.


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