Political donations: Victoria's big secret
by Colleen Lewis
The nearer we get to the November state election the more we hear about the various policies all political parties are presenting to the electorate in the hope of winning seats, and in the case of the major parties, attaining government.
But with only 45 days to go before Victorians cast their votes, they have little knowledge about the political donations policies of various parties. An examination of the four major parties' websites shows that only the Greens outline in detail their internal position on the issue. However, all note that contributions greater than $11,200 are subject to disclosure under the Commonwealth Electoral Act.
What Victorians need to know, from any party fielding candidates in the forthcoming election, is exactly who is donating to them, how much they have given and over what period of time and what, if any, are the donors' affiliations with corporations/businesses and so on. This information is not available because Victoria does not have a donations disclosure policy (although all parties must lodge with the Victorian Election Commission a copy of their Federal annual return, which refers to the $50,000 cap on any donations received from casinos and gambling licensees).
Voters are entitled to know donor-related information before casting their vote. If any party disagrees with this sentiment, they should explain to voters why providing it would not be in the public interest, especially as being denied such information is contributing to the widening trust deficit between politicians and those they represent.
One way of trying to close this gap, which democratic values are perilously close to falling through, is to have a political donations regime that is based on transparency and delivers accountability. Such a policy is needed to assure voters that donations have not gone, and will not go, hand in glove with policy decisions.
Should any party be without a political donations policy, I recommend it and its candidates read and heed the submissions, transcripts and interim report of the New South Wales government's Independent Panel of Experts Review into that State's electoral funding laws.
The Interim Report outlines recommendations for the type of regime required in Victoria. These include "frequent and timely disclosure of reportable political donations", so that voters are aware of all such contributions before voting; meaningful penalties "for serious breaches of elections funding laws", and the introduction of "mandatory education programs for candidates and Members of Parliament on ethical conduct", with a focus on why MPs' need to comply with existing laws. As the panel argues, these policies would have "a practical impact in terms of transparency, accountability and integrity".
While Victorians know very little about political donors, they do know how much it costs to attend a fund-raising lunch or dinner, which grants those who have the ability to pay access to Liberal, National and Labor Party politicians. At a cost of between $10,000 to $25,000 (per ten-person table), attendance at these exorbitantly priced events is limited to wealthy corporations, businesses or individuals.
The price of gaining access to this level of power and influence is unattainable for the overwhelming majority of voters, the so-called ordinary people, that political parties depend on for their votes and for party membership fees. Charging thousands of dollars to be able to spend a few hours with a minister, shadow minister, parliamentary secretary or backbencher (on a sliding scale depending on their influence) is to treat nearly all voters with disdain. The message, perceived or real, is give me your vote but unless you pay you are not welcome to dine, for several hours, with me and other member of my parliamentary political party.
These "ordinary" voters are the same people who, through their taxes, pay the wages of all MPs. They also bear the cost of their allowances, superannuation contributions, overseas study tours and post-parliamentary entitlements. The "ordinary" voter also contributes to political parties, whether they want to or not, through political funding rules. At the moment in Victoria that amounts to $1.20 (adjusted annually for inflation) for every first-preference vote received, with a four per cent eligibility threshold.
Even if Victoria had strong political donations laws, as they do in NSW, we do not have an anti-corruption body with the scope of ICAC which, on suspicion of deliberate attempts to circumvent donor laws, can make meaningful preliminary inquiries; the kind which eventually led to the exposure in NSW of unethical and in some instances potentially illegal behaviour by members of a political party.
The paradox associated with parliamentarians deliberately scheming to circumvent legislation, is that some MPs pass political donation legislation and then spend their time, energy and resources trying to find ways around the laws they passed. This type of action led the NSW government to establish a panel of experts to examine what can be done to prevent such behaviour reoccurring.
The argument that Victoria's political culture is different to that of New South Wales is no longer acceptable to voters in terms of our anti-corruption body, IBAC, or in relation to political funding.
There is an urgent need in Victoria to make the reporting of political donations instantaneous or very nearly so. With today's technology this is an easy and reasonably inexpensive thing to do. There is absolutely no reason why information about who donated to what party or candidate and how much they donated could not be posted on a public website in real time or within 24 to 48 hours after money changes hands. All Victorians look forward to knowing why we do not have such a policy and exactly when one will be introduced.
Adjunct Professor Colleen Lewis works at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.
This article has appeared in The Age.