There is an urgent need to drastically reform the electoral funding system in our country. Until the Federal and State Governments stop dragging their feet and bring in meaningful reform, we need at the very least transparency of the sources of money filling the campaign coffers of the political parties and candidates prior to elections.
Each month hundreds of thousands of dollars flow to political parties and independents. The public isn’t given information about the source of this money until months and sometimes years after it is received. Voters will not know the identity of those buying access to politicians until long after they have cast their ballots. The names of donors and the amounts they give to campaigns are important information that should be made public before people decide for whom they will vote. Yet, only a few political parties, such as the NSW Greens, publish this information.
The process of publicly releasing information on political donations prior to an election is known as continuous disclosure.
While information on donations is important prior to voting in all elections, it seems especially crucial to know who is bankrolling our local government candidates. Councils make many decisions each month that directly affect people such as development application approvals and regulations governing hotel opening hours and the extent of their outside smoking areas. Even small donations from property companies and hotels can give access to councillors and potentially influence their decisions.
Prior to the NSW local government elections to be held on 13 September this year, the Greens democracy4sale research team will publish lists of 2004 donations to many councils in the state. The data reveals that independents and parties in council areas where a large number of development applications are processed – such as Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle, Lake Macquarie, Tweed and Wyong – received tens of thousands of dollars from property interests. Substantial amounts also flowed from hotels to many campaigns.
It could be expected that there would be similar trends in donations given to political parties prior to the September local government election. But this data will not be released until February 2009 at the earliest.
Recent amendments to the election funding act require parties and candidates to disclose funding information once every six months rather than only after each state and local government election. While this is a step in the right direction, both the NSW Labor and Liberal MPs refused to agree to amendments moved by the Greens MPs in the NSW Upper House to allow for continual disclosure in the lead up to each election.
Manly Council introduced a Charter of Political Reform several years ago proposed by Councillor Brad Pedersen of Peter Macdonald’s progressive independent team. Among other reforms this charter calls for all candidates, groups and political parties in Manly Council elections to declare during the campaign any incoming donations over $500 or equivalent in services or ten hours in-kind. These declarations will be put on public display at each polling booth.
In spite of attempts by various Greens councillors, no other council in NSW has provisions for declaration of donations prior to elections. One recent unsuccessful attempt was by Greens Woollahra Councillor David Shoebridge.
After receiving advice from the Council General Manager that there was no lawful impediment to Council establishing a voluntary listing of donations prior to the elections, Shoebridge moved a motion that candidates be invited to provide continuous disclosure of all donations made to the candidates of $200 or more including the date and source of all donations. Those who agreed to participate in this disclosure would have their donations posted on the Woollahra Council web site before the 13 September 2008 election.
Shoebridge’s motion was defeated with all the Liberal and Residents First (except for one who is now a Greens member) councillors voting against it. The one Labor Woollahra councillor wasn’t present for the vote.
Greens Councillor Chris Harris moved a similar motion in Sydney City Council in early August of this year. While Labor voted with the Greens, the Clover Moore Party joined with the Liberal councillor to defeat the motion.
The failure of Moore and her Party to support continuous disclosure is at odds with their public position on donations. For years Moore has argued for transparency in government, and she gave strong backing to the Manly Council initiative on disclosing political donations before elections. In 2004 she said in response to the Manly motion, "I strongly support all measures to improve transparency and accountability in campaign funding and political donations".
Yet this year she said she wouldn’t disclose the donations to her Party before the September election since she didn’t have the resources of the major parties. When Harris’ motion was moved for Sydney Council to post this material on the their website which would allow all councillors and parties to disclosure prior to the election, she wouldn’t support it because "it sought to inappropriately use council resources for electioneering purposes".
We can only speculate why Moore has taken such a different position on disclosure of donations from her former state parliamentary colleague, Peter Macdonald and his progressive team at Manly Council. Moore’s credibility on transparency of the sources of election campaign money has been damaged.
Moore’s main rival in the upcoming election for the position of Lord Mayor of Sydney is Labor’s Dr Meredith Burgmann. Burgmann has pledged to disclose all donations over $200 her party receives prior to the September election.
However, it is unclear when and in what form this disclosure will occur. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Dr Burgmann will not report donations on an easily accessable website since "there are no votes in having [such]a website". Later she said she would provide a phone number of people to ring in order to find who had donated to the Labor campaign. This phone number can only be found on Burgmann’s Facebook profile.
In spite of many promises of reform to the NSW election funding system and pledges of increased transparency of the sources of campaign finances, most people in NSW will have no idea of who is bankrolling the candidates for whom they are voting for their council.
Voters in the Manly Council area will have this information provided by Council on election day. Individuals will be able to see the donors to Greens campaigns such as those to Harris’ Sydney campaign. The remainder of the state’s voters will not know whether property developers and hoteliers bankroll people running in the election or not.
The NSW Government had the opportunity to clean up political funding prior to the 2008 local government elections. They failed to do so. The public have a right to ask – what are candidates who fail to disclose their donations before September 13 trying to hide?
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