Sneaky ways the big boys win on donations

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“It seems only the crossbenchers understand how political donations undermine our democracy. The members of the two big parties are so wedded to their donations from big corporations that they are prepared to make it easier and easier for donations to go undeclared,” political columnist MICHAEL MOORE.

“STATE-sanctioned money laundering” is the description that Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie applied to the action of the federal Labor and Liberal parties when they weakened our electoral donation laws. 

Michael Moore.

Shamefully, the move was slipped through parliament on the last sitting day in October while the media focus was on loosening the Victorian lockdown and the elections in the US and Queensland.

No wonder that trust in politicians is at an all-time low. And declining! This display adds to the dismay over the reluctance of the federal government to establish an anti-corruption and integrity commission. The draft legislation simply lacks teeth. This might change after the consultation process ends in March – but don’t hold your breath!

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Bill 2020 came under fire from a range of crossbenchers. It allows developers in Queensland, NSW and the ACT, for example, to ignore anti-corruption laws in those jurisdictions and make undisclosed donations of up to $14,300. These donations have to be made “for federal purposes”. Hence the accusation of “state-sanctioned money laundering”.

It seems only the crossbenchers understand how political donations undermine our democracy. The members of the two big parties are so wedded to their donations from big corporations that they are prepared to make it easier and easier for donations to go undeclared.

This is not the first attempt of the combined Labor and Liberal parties to allow developers to donate to their parties. A challenge to the ban on developer donations by a federal law was overridden by the High Court. Luke Beck, of Monash University, explained in “The Conversation”: “The High Court also struck down a 2018 federal law that said property developers could ignore state laws banning them from making general donations to political parties.”

Yes, the federal parliament really did pass a law overriding state anti-corruption powers!

The new legislation allows donations in separate “federal purposes” accounts in any jurisdiction and simply frees up money in other accounts for alternative use by the political party in question. It also moves a threshold for declaration from $1000 to $14,300. 

Greens MP, Adam Bandt, told the parliament (by video link): “Isn’t it amazing: the government doesn’t have time to deal with a federal ICAC… but it does have time to bring legislation to the parliament to… allow for the weakening of our federal donations laws so that state rules, which restrict donations from developers and other kinds of corporations, can now be circumvented by making a donation directly to the federal parties”.

Independent MP Zali Steggall described the legislation as “deplorable”, and pointed out “the only people speaking on this insulting legislation to the Australian people and to our democracy are the crossbench members”. 

She identified the legislation would mean less transparency “especially from property developers, mining companies and liquor and gambling groups”.

SA Centre Alliance Party MP Rebekha Sharkie warned that the community should “pay careful attention to legislation when both the majors are pushing it through, and you have one person speaking from each side and you have the entire crossbench against it”.

Earlier in the year when this legislation was before the Upper House, Senator Jacqui Lambie provided a clear warning. Her tirade commenced with an accusation of: “When there’s a chance to fix our rotten donation laws, the Labor Party will flub it”. 

And then went on to say: “I make the mistake of getting my hopes up every time, and every time I get burned, and so do the Australian people. Every time I hope they’ll get it right they just send it further backwards, and I’m always so disappointed.”

Under the cover of COVID-19 and interesting elections, the major parties have moved once again to undermine yet another opportunity to build trust in our political system. 

As the Human Rights Law Centre has pointed out: “The free flow of money into Australia’s political system threatens the integrity of our democracy”.

A quick glance at the US should provide a sober warning of what happens when trust in political systems is undermined. And nothing undermines our democratic system and levels of trust than shonky political donations.

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Michael Moore
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He has been a political columnist with "CityNews" since 2006.

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