And why not? If we can vote privately, why can we not donate privately? And note that really big donors still have to be publicly disclosed
The Government is introducing the biggest reforms to electoral legislation for almost a quarter of a century. Former Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson once said the purpose of those earlier changes by the Hawke government was to "make the task of anyone trying to take [power] from us as difficult as we could". By that measure, the Howard Government's changes are a worthy successor. Labor spokesman on electoral matters Alan Griffin has characterised them as making it "far harder to vote but much easier to secretly donate to political parties". Griffin's motivations are partisan, but that happens to be a fair summary.
The legislation increases the threshold for disclosing political donations from $1500 to $10,000. With the main parties all having national, state and territory branches registered separately under the electoral act, that means a single donor in future will be able to make nine donations of $10,000 to the Labor Party without having to disclose them. Alternatively, it could give eight lots of $10,000 to the Liberal Party and six to the Nationals without any nosy parkers outside the parties knowing about it. Or it could do all of the above; namely, make political donations of $230,000 without having to declare a cent. The changes mean none of the donations AWB has made in recent years would have had to be disclosed.
In its majority - that is, government - report on the 2004 election, the joint parliamentary committee on electoral matters said it was sceptical that donations of $10,000 or below "could be said to exert undue influence over recipients or to engender corruption"....
And there are plenty of other inventive ways to spread donations. Robert Gerard became the Liberals' biggest Australian donor in 2004-05 after Treasurer Peter Costello appointed him to the Reserve Bank board, kicking the Liberal tin for more than $262,000. That was made up of three personal donations totalling $11,000, three from Gerard Corporation adding up to $151,265 and a single sum of $100,000 from an associated company, Mistral. The total was more than four times the amount he donated the previous year. Whether he is as generous in future after being forced off the board over a rumpus about his tax affairs is another matter. There are other loopholes in the laws that enable donors to avoid disclosure completely, such as buying access to ministers in ways not defined as donations or giving to foundations that channel money to the big parties.
Lifting the threshold potentially benefits both parties. Kim Beazley made a hero of himself by directing the federal Labor Party to donate the $12,500 it had received from AWB to a charity working in Iraq. Quite apart from the fact this did not cover money given to state Labor branches, would that have happened if the donation had not been disclosed? Not on your nelly. But the Liberals have more to gain. Many larger companies have stopped making donations, partly because they attract difficulties if they are seen to give more to one side of politics than the other, while donating equal amounts dilutes the value of the investment. In February, the Liberal Party's federal treasurer, John Calvert-Jones, was frank about it: lifting the threshold would help the party's finances.
The bigger parties effectively have collaborated to set up an elaborate structure to buy influence and access while erecting a facade of disclosure laws that the Government is making it even easier to get around. But at the same time the Government is tightening the laws on voting out of a professed concern about fraud. This is an even more blatant attempt to tilt the balance in the conservatives' favour.
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