Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says in ‘‘an ideal world’’ he is open to political funding reform. He cites annual caps on donations and limiting them to individuals, not unions or corporations. At least that would be a start.
Australia has nine different political jurisdictions that determine rules on electoral funding. Yet the Council of Australian Governments has not made donations reform a priority either.
Various political parties federally have embraced parts of a broader reform agenda, but most parliamentary committee recommendations have languished. The federal disclosure limit of $13,200 each donation is vastly inflated. That amount, along with taxpayer funding for parties’ campaigns, ensures the cost of elections keeps increasing. Before thenprime minister John Howard changed the rules in 2006, the donations limit was $1500. It should be far less than that.
All who stand for Parliament should have an equal chance to have their campaigns funded and their message heard. At the last election concerns were raised when Queensland businessman Clive Palmer funded his party’s campaign. Now the Australian Electoral Commission is investigating an offer by Adelaide businessman Roostam Sadri to donate $500,000 to the Liberal Democratic Party, led by NSW Senator David Leyonhjelm, in return for a guaranteed position as the party’s lead Senate candidate in South Australia. The commission said on Monday it was ‘‘concerned’’ about the written agreement, revealed in leaked documents reported by Fairfax Media.
A deal was proposed in which Mr Sadri would hand over $500,000 on the condition he be placed in the top position on the Liberal Democrats’ ticket. Nothing came of the plan, although Mr Sadri has donated some money to the micro-party.
Constitutional law expert Professor George Williams told the Herald: ‘‘We already have a big problem with political donations. If people can actually buy their way into preselection and to the ticket then that’s an even bigger problem.’’
But the Liberal Democrats insist Mr Sadri’s money had no influence on the decision to select him as the party’s only Senate candidate in SA; it was based on his ‘‘excellent credentials’’ and purely on merit. Notably, the Liberal Democrats oppose taxpayer funding of political parties. The alternative, of course, is to allow certain individuals and organisations to feel they are owed something by the parties to which they donate. As such tough rules are required.
Former Labor MP Maxine McKew, in her role as director of the John Cain Foundation, is pushing to have political donations reform accelerated. The John Cain Foundation wants all candidates to make full disclosure of all sources of their campaign financing before the July 2 election. That is a big ask.
In her research to support the campaign, Colleen Lewis of Monash University wrote how no legislation had been presented to Parliament to fix the broken system, despite a report from respected Labor elder John Faulkner in 2008 and the 2011 post-election committee inquiry recommendations for action.
‘‘The sting emanates from the fact that most of the beneficiaries of the status quo are the same group of people invested with the legislative power to rectify the current deficiencies in Australia’s electoral laws,’’
Dr Lewis wrote.
Former Liberal Party treasurer Michael Yabsley reckons if annual caps on private donations were implemented and each Australian paid $200, there would be plenty available to fund election campaigns. The attraction of such a simple system highlights how far our democracy has moved away from common sense funding and the necessary transparency. Voters are entitled to vent their anger at the ballot box.
Originally published in the SMH 7th June 2016